The Promise of Restorative Justice Interventions

Houston Institute
Oct 22, 2019 · 5 min read

by Jacqueline Lantsman

The advancement of Restorative Justice (RJ) interventions across U.S. communities is a departure from draconian, retributive sentencing policy, and advancement toward the reclamation of community agency. RJ interventions challenge traditional conceptions of justice, by focusing on the survivor of wrongdoing, and making their unique and nuanced process of healing a priority. Instead of assuming a mandatory sentence will help a survivor heal and a perpetrator reform, RJ provides the opportunity for a community to reclaim and define accountability and safety. If we intend to move toward racial justice and reparations to communities plagued by mass incarceration, we must promote the use of Restorative Justice, contrary to traditional carceral practices.

Restorative Justice interventions, led by community stakeholders, are being developed across United States cities affected by generations of cyclical violence. RJ frameworks can manifest in a variety of ways, offering participants the flexibility to own and adapt their programming to their needs. A few of the models include:

  1. Victim-Offender Mediation: During this facilitated meeting, led by a trained mediator, the survivor and offender begin to express their feelings surrounding the offense, and move toward resolving the conflict with their own unique understanding of justice.
  2. Community and Family Group Conferencing: This model identifies the support network of family of both the survivor and offender, empowering those individuals to make important decisions that might otherwise be made by the justice system.
  3. Circle Sentencing: This method is an alternative to formal court-based sentencing. The process invites community members into a circle, where charges are read and community members discuss the offense, offender, underlying causes of offense, and what can be done within the community to prevent further dysfunctional behavior, among other things.
  4. Peacemaking Circles: Originating from aboriginal and native traditions, peacemaking circles bring together individuals interested in conflict resolution. During this process, two “keepers” and a “talking piece” are selected to guide participants and ensure respect between speakers and listeners.
  5. Reparative Probation and Community Boards (RPCB): A more permanent method, RPCB consists of small groups of community members who receive intensive training where they learn to conduct public, face-to-face meetings with offenders sentenced by the court to participate in RPCB.

As Restorative Justice practices evolve and become more familiar and acceptable measures for confronting violence, new approaches are developed, with local communities leading the charge.

Restorative Justice… “implies a sense of recovery, a degree of closure.”

- Howard Zehr

How Restorative Justice Manifests in the Community

Across U.S. cities, community-based organizations are taking the lead on developing Restorative Justice programming and services for adolescents, young adults, and adults in the general community.

In Chicago, the Community Justice for Youth Institute (CJYI) provides regular training and technical assistance for the implementation of restorative justice and peacemaking circles in schools, communities, and the juvenile justice system.

“It’s a portal to talking about direct racism, institutional racism, about the hierarchy of power. Why are my schools bad, why don’t we have the same services in my area, and why is there so much violence here?”

- Judge Colleen Sheehan, Cook County Juvenile Court

The leadership of Kings Against Violence Initiative (KAVI) in New York City handed over their intervention to young adults, embracing a mentorship model in which stakeholders from the community facilitate a month-long leadership and enrichment camp that advocates for youth, and practices restorative justice and collective healing.

In Baltimore, Restorative Response Baltimore (RRB) offers various testimonials to the Restorative Justice services they provide in their community. A principal in a Baltimore high school was planning to suspend 17 students who were involved in two fights; however, due to RRBs involvement with the school, an agreement was made that Community Conferences would be the immediate response to violence taking place in the school building. During this intervention, the conference facilitator involved the 17 students and their families in a week-long dialogue, in which participants discussed what happened and how each person had been affected and then created a written resolution.

“RRB grounds us in shared values and agreements where we can start to talk about these wounds, these pains, that have been sitting there for so long.”

- Minna Kim, Community Organizer

Is Restorative Justice an Evidence-Based Practice?

Empirical results of Restorative Justice effectiveness have varied; however, Latimer, Dowden, and Muise found in a synthesis of existing literature that RJ interventions are significantly more effective than traditional non-restorative approaches. The majority of evidence-based studies on RJ have examined interventions implemented to confront exclusionary discipline practices in school and help domestic violence victim-survivors heal and find peace.

In schools, Restorative Justice interventions have been shown to reduce student out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. Schools across the United States are attempting to confront in-school violence by offering educators the tools to teach students skills to voice personal frustration, hear the experiences of their peers, and understand their contribution to creating a healthy and safe classroom culture. Gregory and colleagues in 2016 found that teachers who implemented Restorative Practices (RP) had more positive relationships with diverse students, with students perceiving increased respect from teachers. Additionally, once RP is implemented in the classroom, teachers issue fewer exclusionary discipline referrals particularly to Latino and African American students.

Within the context of women’s victimization, the Restorative Justice models often used are victim-offender conferencing, family group conferencing, healing circles, and community reparations. Umbreit and colleagues conducted a literature review and found that overall both victims and offenders approved of RJ programs; however, other research cautioned that interventions might only be effective for victims and offenders with specific characteristics.

Motivated by evidence-based research, community-based organizations are reclaiming the justice process by intervening in community violence, recognizing that conflict presents an opportunity for learning, healing, and transformation. The advancement of Restorative Justice practices across U.S. cities resists the institutional forces of mass incarceration of people of color.

A few of the organizations leading the charge towards Restorative Justice include:

Restorative Response Baltimore (RRB)

Kings Against Violence Initiative (KAVI)

Chicago the Community Justice for Youth Institute (CJYI)

Common Justice Restorative DC

Our Restorative Justice (OurRJ)

Jacqueline Lantsman is currently receiving her Masters of Public Health, with a focus on health policy, at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health. She takes a cross-sectoral approach to advancing quality of life. Her former experiences include policy research and programmatic work at the Brookings Institution, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Originally published at

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