What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that understands justice as fundamentally concerned with addressing the harm to relationships related to and resulting from wrongdoing. Restorative justice offers an approach to accountability for harm, based on the restoration of equality in social relations and reparation to those who have suffered that harm. Restorative justice is rooted in values of equality, mutual respect, and concern. Restorative justice uses deliberative processes involving victims, offenders, their respective supporters, and representatives of the broader community under the guidance of authorized and skilled facilitators. There are many contexts within which restorative justice processes may be utilized. These may include youth or adult criminal justice matters, school bullying, disorder in institutional residential homes, conflicts in the workplace, or solutions to the kind of widespread social conflict and violence which has led to truth and reconciliation commissions.

There are many kinds of processes which often go under the name of restorative conferencing. To be fully effective, restorative conferencing should involve not only the offender, the victim and a facilitator, but also family and friends of both victim and offender who can bring insight and support to the discussion. In addition, it is important to identify representatives of the community, who are respected by both offender and victim, who appreciate the impact that the harm may have on the wider community, and who may also be capable of identifying or providing resources in the process of reparation of the harm. Restorative conferences are more than an isolated encounter leading to some sort of mediated agreement. Trained facilitators are required to identify appropriate people to attend the sessions, prepare participants for the restorative process, secure participant safety and protection against power imbalances in the conference, guide the deliberations through productive and egalitarian channels, and assist participants in reaching and monitoring outcome agreements. While restorative justice may be imbedded in communities of diverse character, the state can play an important supervisory role in ensuring that community based restorative justice processes respect principles of due process, fairness, equality and the rule of law. The mainstream justice system, of course, provides a backstop where restorative justice fails or where particular cases are evidently inappropriate for such an approach.

Restorative justice has its roots in many common social practices which predate the rise of the nation state. But for the most part, modern variants of restorative conferencing are attempts by various actors in different communities, both inside and outside of the justice system, to respond to perceived inadequacies, injustices and alienating features of mainstream legal processes. Religious communities have been a source of restorative alternatives to the criminal justice system, either in the form of pre-trial diversion projects or adjuncts to correctional activities on the part of the state. Aboriginal culture and practices, such as healing circles, have also had a formative influence on Canadian restorative justice thinking. Circle sentencing, based on aboriginal practice in different guises, was pioneered by courts in northern and western Canada and has been adopted in other areas of the country. The RCMP embraced the Australian Wagga Wagga Model of restorative conferencing in the mid-1990s and trained many of its officers and community members across Canada in police led “community justice forums”. Scholarly writing on restorative justice from around the world, particularly Australia and New Zealand, has also had an impact in Canada. Saskatchewan developed a youth diversion approach based on restorative justice and crime prevention principles astutely called “getting smart about getting tough”. However, only one province, Nova Scotia, has implemented a comprehensive approach to restorative justice in the youth context. This program is the focus of the NSRJ-CURA research program.