The Promise of Restorative Justice: Reduced Pressure on Courts, Reduced Recidivism, Increased Public Trust in the Rule of Law

Article by Mark Goodner

Based on a September 27, 2016 presentation by Professor Johannes Wheeldon or Norwich University and Honorable David Suntag of Vermont Superior Court.

In a thought provoking session at NASJE’s 2016 Annual Conference in Burlington, Vermont, Dr. Johannes Wheeldon and the Honorable David Suntag offered the underlying premises of restorative justice — while attempting to respond to criminal acts, the justice system itself causes harm, and the participation of those in the justice system is often limited to hiring a lawyer to navigate complex procedures. This lack of participation by those whose lives are affected leads to a default society. Restorative justice, on the other hand, demands meaningful participation and affords an opportunity to articulate our needs. This healthy communication forms a foundation for strong, cohesive communities where the best crime prevention exists largely thanks to the use of informal social controls.

The instructors explained that while restorative justice had multiple definitions as well as numerous variations, the theory emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. The harm is not a mere violation of a criminal law or the defiance of governmental authority; crime’s harm is a disruption in a relationship between three parties: the victim; the offender; and the community. In recognizing the harm to the victim and the community, the primary goals of restorative justice are to restore the victim and the community, repair harms, and rebuild the disrupted relationships. These goals are best attained when the government surrenders its monopoly over responses to crime, all the stakeholders participate in determining what happens focused most intently on the needs of the victim and community as opposed to the offender’s needs or culpability, dangers the offender presents, or the offender’s criminal history.

Wheeldon and Suntag provided evidence that implementation of restorative justice efforts shows measurable results, leading us to consider how best to capture its promise with broadened use. Specifically, evidence shows that restorative justice can substantially reduce repeat offending, reduce victims’ post-traumatic stress symptoms, and provide increased satisfaction to both victims and offenders. Further, restorative justice lessens the desire for victims of crime to seek violent revenge and reduces the costs of a traditional criminal justice system. More information on the promise of restorative justice can be found in the member area of nasje.org. The materials list several resources for further academic reading, as well as the successful results of restorative justice used by Judge Suntag in the Vermont Integrated Domestic Violence Docket Experiment.