THE BLOG
01/30/2013 01:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2013

Restorative Justice Is Not Forgiveness

Restorative justice has been receiving a lot of attention lately, due to Paul Tullis's January 4 New York Times Magazine article, "Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?"

This story about a restorative justice conference following the murder of a young woman by her boyfriend was also covered on the January 5 episode of the Today Show, "Parents who forgave their daughter's killer: It 'frees us.'"

Both the Times and the Today stories do their audience a disservice by dwelling on forgiveness as the apparent reason for restorative justice. Forgiveness is neither an expectation nor a goal of restorative justice. Forgiveness may be a by-product, but the notion that a crime victim should forgive an offender imposes unrealistic and potentially hurtful demands on a crime victim.

Sujatha Baliga, the woman who facilitated the restorative justice conference covered by the NY Times and Today, shared her feelings about this issue on her Facebook page: "A little bummed that the [Today show] headline conflates restorative justice and forgiveness (restorative justice never requires forgiveness, although it does show up fairly often in restorative dialogues...)."

Terry O'Connell, the former Australian police officer who pioneered restorative justice conferences, saw them as "an opportunity to achieve a shared understanding of how everyone been affected by an incident." This benefits the 90-plus percent of victims, offenders, family and friends who reported "satisfaction" and "a sense of fairness" to researchers in many varied locales in restorative conferences for a wide range of criminal offenses.

In Facing the Demons, the award-winning Australian documentary, Terry O'Connell convened a restorative conference four-and-a-half years after the bungled armed robbery that took the life of 19-year-old Michael Marslew. After the conference, all the participants experienced some benefit that had eluded them for all those years. Michael's mother, Joan, recovered all of her fond memories of her son's life, obscured by the haunting image of his bloodied face in the morgue, on the night she identified his body. As for forgiveness, she explained simply, "If you could give me back my son, I could forgive you anything."

From seemingly minor crimes to the most severe, victims and their loved ones feel angry, hurt, betrayed or frightened by offenders. The restorative justice process gives them an opportunity to express those feelings directly to offenders, to ask questions such as "Why me?", to get an apology and to help determine restitution -- outcomes that our court system cannot provide.

According to Dr. Caroline M. Angel, "The most striking thing was that conferences reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder." A lecturer in criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, Angel studied the impact of restorative justice on post-traumatic stress symptoms in victims of robbery and burglary and concluded that, "What you have here is a one-time program that's effective in producing benefits for the majority of people." So instead of focusing on the not-always attainable and sometimes detrimental expectation of forgiveness, we should recognize that restorative justice reliably helps victims, and those who love them, to cope with the trauma of crime.

There is also evidence that restorative justice may reduce re-offending. "Restorative Justice: The Evidence," published in the UK by the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that restorative justice conferences were as, or more effective than traditional methods of criminal justice for reducing crime with respect to nearly every group of offender studied.

A later research report, "Does restorative justice affect reconviction?" published by the University of Sheffield, UK, shows that face-to-face restorative justice conferences not only reduce crime but also cost less than traditional justice processes.

Offenders, victims and their supporters all benefit from the free exchange of emotion that happens in a restorative justice conference. The conference process provides a way for all participants to discover their common humanity and move forward. Although forgiveness sometimes happens, none of these benefits of restorative justice are predicated on the victim forgiving the offender.

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