Restorative justice has been regarded as an efficient alternative to the retributive approach, but it also faces a significant degree of criticism. The supporters of restorative justice programs claim that they have numerous positive outcomes for the community including decreased recidivism and incarceration rates, as well as victims’ satisfaction and restoration of their wholeness (Tsui, 2014). Nevertheless, opponents of such programs argue that there is no evidence of such outcomes as reduced recidivism or incarceration. Other common points of criticism include such aspects as the focus of restorative justice programs, financial concerns, inequality and some other. However, prior to analyzing major criticisms of restorative justice programs, it is necessary to examine the way researchers define restorative justice.
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Definition of the Concept
Many researchers have tried to define the concept, but there is still the lack of clarity in this area. Wood (2015) states that no standard definition has been developed and there is no agreement on criteria for defining the concept of restorative justice or a restorative justice program. Wood and Suzuki (2016) emphasize that one of the most significant problems associated with the definition of the term is the fact that it has been applied to a wide range of practices, programs, approaches, systems, and so on. At the same time, researchers identify the most common types of restorative justice programs that include victim-offender mediation, sentence circles, conferencing, victim impact panels, and reparation boards.
Victim-offender mediation involves the interaction between the victim and the offender with the assistance of the mediator who first meets with the stakeholders separately and is present during the parties’ meeting (Alarid, 2016). Conferencing involves the interaction of a larger group of people as a particular group (a family or class) discusses the issues associated with the offense (harm, possible solutions, feelings, and so on). Sentence circles often involve the interaction of a large number of people (for example, the entire community can participate). These sessions include the discussion of aspects mentioned above, but they also involve the development of particular actions aimed at satisfying the stakeholders. Victim impact panels and reparation boards are formations aimed at supervising and managing the process of probation making sure that all the requirements are met. It is necessary to mention that restitution and community service are the most common tools used to restore justice or compensate the harm inflicted.
Since the major types of restorative justice programs are defined and the definition issue is mentioned, it is possible to consider areas of criticism. One of the primary concerns associated with restorative justice in general, as well as every restorative justice program in particular, is its doubtful effectiveness in terms of the recidivism and incarceration rate. Wood (2015) stresses that restorative justice programs are often associated with crimes that rarely lead to incarceration, which makes the use of these criteria irrelevant. Some researchers are more positive about this criterion, but they agree that little research is available especially when it comes to some types of programs. For instance, Van Ness and Strong (2013) note that there is little information concerning the use of sentence circles with indigenous people and its effectiveness. Alarid (2016) admits that although conferencing is quite effective with juvenile offenders, this type of restorative justice program does not have a meaningful impact on recidivism among adults.
Another area of researchers’ concern is the focus of restorative justice programs. Alarid (2016) notes that the programs are criticized as they tend to focus on the needs and feelings of offenders while needs, motives, and inclinations of offenders are disregarded and neglected. For example, shaming is one of the major peculiarities of all types of restorative justice programs, but it may have different effects on the offender (Bazemore & Schiff, 2013). It has been acknowledged that the majority of offenders agree to participate in such programs to escape from stricter punishments (Van Ness & Strong, 2013). Excessive shaming or pressure may have an opposite effect, and make the offender less empathetic and collaborative. Alarid (2016) argues that shaming can lead to further stigmatization that can translate into recidivism in many offenders.
Restorative justice programs also face a considerable degree of criticism due to their narrow focus. Researchers tend to stress that the focus on juvenile and lower-end offenses has led to “ghettoization of restorative justice” (as cited in Wood & Suzuki, 2016, p. 158). Wood (2015) sheds light on the limitations associated with drug-related offenses. The researcher stresses that the war on drugs (which is still ongoing in the USA) results in the incarceration of the vast majority of offenders (Wood, 2015). Wood and Suzuki (2016) add that such groups as indigenous people, ethnic minorities, females are neglected when it comes to literature on restorative justice efficiency. The authors state that indigenous people have acquired the most attention among the groups mentioned above.
The programs are criticized as they fail to reach all the groups that can be involved. Clearly, this is especially true for ethnic minorities. Researchers emphasize that restorative justice programs are less likely to be universally effective due to the diversity of the US society (Bazemore & Schiff, 2013). Cultural differences of people pertaining to different ethnic groups make it difficult and sometimes impossible for the offender and the victim to find satisfaction as they may have specific views on justice, punishment, and so on. For instance, such practices as sentence circles can be less effective in culturally diverse groups as individuals may have different views on shaming and adequate punishment (Bazemore & Schiff, 2013).
Restorative justice programs face certain criticism for focusing on the crime rather than the underlying reasons for criminal activity. Wood (2015) states that restorative justice programs are concerned with restoring the community and victims. It is proclaimed that the programs restore the offender through acknowledgment of the harm caused. Nonetheless, the offender does not receive any meaningful support that can divert the individual from committing a crime.
Financial aspects associated with restorative justice programs have also been criticized. Alarid (2016) claims that restitution is linked to quite significant flaws as this practice violates the major principles of restorative justice. For example, offenders often provide a monetary compensation without displaying any remorse or understanding of the harm caused. Offenders may feel sorry for being caught rather than inflicting the harm, which is unlikely to reduce recidivism.
The researcher adds that the collection of compensations is associated with various issues (Alarid, 2016). The most serious problem is related to the incarceration for failure to pay the compensation. In many cases, offenders may have limited funds, which will potentially bring them to prison. This outcome is not in line with the principles of restorative justice. Besides, it may be difficult to identify the amount of restitution as victims do not participate actively in the process. This often occurs due to the lack of knowledge concerning restitution and restorative justice programs (Tsui, 2014). Alarid (2016) stresses that although restorative justice programs make offenders more empathetic and more willing to pay, this has no effect on recidivism. In other words, offenders pay the compensation, but they may still get involved in the criminal activity in the future.
As has been mentioned above, there is a considerable gap in literature when it comes to such concepts as ethnicity, gender, and social status. Wood and Suzuki (2016) claim that there are a few studies on the ways these concepts are represented in restorative justice programs. The researchers stress that these practices tend to be based on the “Eurocentric view of justice” (Wood & Suzuki, 2016, p. 159).
Apart from the lack of information on this area, researchers identify another issue. Wood (2015) argues that restorative justice programs often contribute to the existing inequality. Wood and Suzuki (2016) also claim that people view restorative justice programs as discriminatory and increasing social marginalization. People of color believe that the programs are biased, and ethnic minorities are stigmatized, which reduces the effectiveness of restorative justice practices. Again, sentence circles may be difficult to manage if the stakeholders pertain to different ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
Alternative or Complementary Measure?
Besides, researchers tend to doubt that restoration justice programs can serve or even be regarded as an alternative to other criminal justice practices. Wood (2015) argues that these programs are mainly used as complementary steps aimed at assisting offenders (and victims) to re-integrate into the society. The analysis of studies concerning restorative justice programs shows that only a few cases can be regarded as the use of the programs as an alternative to incarceration. For example, the study of the so-called VORP (Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs) in Indiana and Ohio is often regarded as an illustration of the use of restorative justice as an alternative to incarceration. It is noteworthy that the participants served some terms (which were quite short) (Wood, 2015). Other cases are even less likely to be seen as an alternative as there are particular terms to be served or no incarceration at all.
Finally, restorative justice programs have been heavily criticized due to the issues associated with the identification of victims and their involvement in the process. First, it is hard to identify the people who should participate in the program (Alarid, 2016). For instance, when it comes to property crimes, it may be difficult to choose the victim(s) as this can be the owner (or owners) of the property. At that, other people (relatives and close ones) could also be affected and could need restorative measures. Victim-offender mediation is the most vulnerable practice in this respect. When it comes to the harm inflicted on the entire community, it can be rather difficult to choose the victims to participate in the chosen restorative justice programs as the number of victims can be considerable. More so, people who need it most should take part in the process, while the tools for selecting such individuals are not properly outlined (Bazemore & Schiff, 2013).
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Another problem is the involvement of stakeholders as victims (and offenders) may have certain reasons to remain aside. Alarid (2016) notes that the victim can be in the psychological and emotional state preventing them from facing the offender (or even any other person). Again, victim-offender mediation can be difficult to manage as the victim can find it impossible to face the offender. Offenders can be reluctant to fully participate in the process or provide truthful opinions on its effectiveness. These aspects make it difficult for researchers to identify the efficiency of restorative justice programs. They also undermine the programs’ effectiveness. For instance, the offender may participate in conferencing or sentence circles and claim that the harm has been acknowledged. However, the offender’s reaction can only be a strategy to behave in the situation involving many people around.
The review of the literature reveals a number of gaps associated with the assessment of restorative justice programs. First, it is necessary to develop sound and standard definition of restorative justice. This will help researchers and practitioners identify assessment criteria effectively and come up with efficient restorative justice programs. Wood and Suzuki (2016) note that the principles of restorative justice are outlined, but they are applied in many settings, which has made them rather vague. Therefore, a standard definition will eliminate any unclarity or vagueness.
Another recommendation is associated with the impact of restorative justice programs on recidivism and the nature of the programs. Wood (2015) stresses that there is almost no correlation between the use of these programs and recidivism. Alarid (2016) also admits that there is little evidence of the correlation with adult offenders. However, it is clear that the criteria used for assessment are ineffective as offenders who are unlikely to be imprisoned often participate in these programs. Hence, it is ineffective to measure recidivism.
One of the most serious obstacles to examining the correlation between recidivism and the use of restorative justice programs is that they are applied to low-end crimes, and they are not used as the alternative to imprisonment. As for the first issue, researchers will have to seek for cases where the programs are utilized with offenders who have committed violent crimes. However, the other problem is even more difficult to address. Researchers stress that restorative justice is not used as an alternative but is employed as a complementary practice. Therefore, various factors (other than the participation in a restorative justice program) affect inmates and those released from prisons. Researchers can still address the gap in the literature by comparing recidivism rates in people who served different terms, have different backgrounds (education, socioeconomic status, family ties, and so on) and who have taken part in different restorative justice programs (with the focus on their duration and intensity).
Furthermore, researchers may enrich the knowledge base through the analysis of the effectiveness of programs that have the balanced focus on the victim’s and offender’s needs and perspectives. Offenders tend to leave the programs stigmatized, which negatively affects their further re-integration into the community (Wood & Suzuki, 2016). Hence, researchers should make sure that offenders’ voices are heard during the programs. It is vital to assess the efficiency of such programs and compare them to practice based on a more conventional approach. Clearly, it is vital to develop particular tools and measures aimed at identifying victims and encouraging stakeholders to participate actively.
The most significant gap in the literature on restorative justice is associated with such concepts as equality, gender, ethnicity, and so on. Researchers should pay more attention to the assessment of the effectiveness of restorative justice programs with female offenders and ethnic minorities. Studies should also address the way different communities (well-off as compared to underprivileged ones) participate in the programs and facilitate in the reintegration of former inmates. Bazemore and Schiff (2013) note that cultural differences undermine the effectiveness of programs as Western values and norms are utilized. Therefore, new studies should explore particular values, beliefs, and norms that are unacceptable for some groups (ethnic, religious, and so on). The studies will become the ground for the development of more effective and diverse practices.
Finally, inequality-related issues require specific attention. Researchers should analyze particular factors contributing to recidivism or offenders’ and victims’ unwillingness to participate actively in restorative justice programs. It is necessary to make sure that the programs do not simply facilitate the discussion but include particular steps that empower the stakeholders involved. Financial and social support, as well as supervision, may be included in such programs. Researchers will evaluate the efficiency of such measures.
In conclusion, it is necessary to note that restorative justice programs (as well as the concept itself) have faced a significant degree of criticism recently. Researchers and practitioners argue that the effectiveness of these programs is doubtful. Various aspects of the practice have been in researchers’ lenses. It is stressed that these programs have little effect on (or rather there is insufficient evidence that it affects) the rate of recidivism or incarceration. The lack of definitions and overall clarity in concepts contributes to confusion and difficulties in identifying and assessing criteria of the programs’ effectiveness. The narrow focus of modern restorative justice programs is another area of criticism as researchers note that the diverse American society cannot benefit from programs based on western values and beliefs. It is also emphasized that the programs often contribute to inequality and fail to address different needs of various groups of people (based on gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and so on). It is necessary to note that there are considerable gaps in the literature on restorative justice programs.
To eliminate these gaps, researchers can and should focus on a number of areas. First, they should come up with standard definitions of key terms and concepts, which will be beneficial for the programs’ development and assessment. Researchers should pay more attention to the assessment of programs and the way they are related to gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and so on. Finally, it is critical to make sure that restorative justice programs are not narrow but cover all the major areas including the effective collaboration of all the stakeholders. It is insufficient to bring people together, make them talk, and make the offender pay (in cash or through labor) for the harm caused. It is essential to make sure that the program creates the necessary platform for changing the setting and eliminating factors that made the offender commit the crime in the first place. The development and evaluation of such restorative justice programs should become the priority, which will translate into positive changes in the society.
Alarid, L. F. (2016). Community based corrections. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Bazemore, S., & Schiff, M. (2013). Juvenile justice reform and restorative justice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Tsui, J. C. (2014). Breaking free of the prison paradigm: Integrating restorative justice techniques into Chicago’s juvenile justice system. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 104(3), 635-665.
Van Ness, D. W., & Strong, K. H. (2013). Restoring justice: An introduction to restorative justice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Wood, W. R. (2015). Why restorative justice will not reduce incarceration. British Journal of Criminology, 55(5), 883-900.
Wood, W. R., & Suzuki, M. (2016). Four challenges in the future of restorative justice. Victims & Offenders: An International Journal of Evidence-Based Research, Policy, and Practice, 11(1), 149-175.