Ancient Solutions to Current Problems: The Case for Restorative Justice

By Yuliya Shyrokonis

There are nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States—more per capita than any other country on Earth. Taxpayers pay an average of $36,299.25 per year for every inmate in federal prison. However, in the nine years following release, 83 percent of former inmates released in 2005 were rearrested, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report. These stark figures should force a reckoning: is this system in any way just, and does it even deliver on its purported goal of preventing crime?

In recent years, scientific research has found robust support for the efficacy of an alternative, centuries-old approach to justice called restorative justice. Restorative justice has been found to both decrease recidivism and increase satisfaction with the justice process among those harmed by crime. In other words, it’s a breath of fresh air that may help tackle America’s mass incarceration crisis.

The term “restorative justice” was coined in 1977 by Albert Eglash. Eglash sought to differentiate the concept from retributive justice, the idea of meeting crime with punishment—the core guiding principle of the US criminal justice system. Restorative justice, on the other hand, aims first and foremost to heal the individuals and communities harmed by a crime and to rehabilitate those who caused the harm. (In restorative justice, terms like “offender” and “survivor” are typically avoided in favor of “person-first” language.)

Healing and rehabilitation begin through a process in which all those involved in a harmful situation decide the steps that can be taken to ameliorate the harm. The model has recently gained recognition in the U.S., but its roots are far deeper, dating back centuries to Indigenous peoples of present-day Canada, the U.S., and New Zealand. But what does restorative justice look like, and can it be meaningfully implemented in the present-day United States?

From 2013 to 2016, I worked on a study of restorative justice at New York University’s Center on Violence and Recovery, which examined the application of a restorative justice model called Circles of Peace in domestic violence cases. The study involved 222 individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors who were court-mandated to undergo interventions. Participants were randomly assigned to attend either a traditional batterer intervention program or a hybrid traditional-plus-Circles of Peace program. The traditional program involved group treatment sessions in which participants learned about the social and political systems that perpetuate violence, were trained to manage dominating and controlling behaviors, and practiced nonviolent communication and relationship building skills. The Circles of Peace sessions involved one participant, a facilitator, a trained community member, and friends and family of the participant and sometimes those of the person they harmed. The person who had been harmed also had the option of joining. Sessions began with the program participant acknowledging the harm and discussing its consequences. Next, all attendees discussed how the harm may be repaired and developed a social compact. The compact outlined expectations for behavior change on the part of the program participant, intended to help the person who had been harmed and the community feel safer and to prevent further violence. The compact also committed to monitoring the participant’s behavior and development going forward.

To measure the effectiveness of this method, participants’ criminal records were monitored for a total of two years from the start of the study. The results were decisive: the Circles of Peace group experienced 52 percent fewer arrests, and their crimes were 53 percent less severe, than the traditional intervention group. Not only did the restorative justice treatment lead participants to commit fewer crimes, it also decreased the severity of crimes they did commit—exactly what we should aim for when designing our responses to crime.

Research has also found that restorative justice can be a powerful tool for healing for individuals harmed by crime. In one study involving both property and violent crimes, about 88 percent of people who had been harmed stated that they would recommend restorative justice to others and were pleased with the outcome. The study demonstrated that dialogue with the person who had caused harm in a controlled, mediated environment can offer opportunities for psychological and social restitution that may be unavailable through the retributive system. This can help people who were harmed return to normal life, and improve the future behavior of those who harmed them.

Restorative justice can be employed either in tandem with, or as a replacement for more typical retributive methods such as fines and incarceration. Using restorative justice as an alternative to incarceration in select cases would decrease some of the immense costs associated with imprisonment and help tackle a critical issue in our carceral system: overcrowding. The prison system frequently confines inmates to dangerous conditions, lack of medical care, and extremely low-pay work, all of which are extrajudicial punishments whose consequences go far beyond those officially assigned in court. Thus far in the COVID-19 pandemic, these conditions have led to the confirmed infection of nearly 384,000 incarcerated people in federal prisons alone, of whom over 2,300 have died.

A systematic review and a meta-analysis of restorative justice studies found that restorative justice programs cause greater reductions in recidivism than traditional responses at a fraction of the cost. Thus, restorative justice could address funding and overcrowding issues while keeping us safer than our current criminal justice system. Given the staggering number of deaths of inmates not actually sentenced to die, before and especially during the pandemic, it is imperative that we tackle these problems head-on.

Despite robust scientific evidence demonstrating the efficacy of restorative justice methods, scholarly work on the topic is fairly limited, and implementation remains rare. It is long past time that we rectify this, and implement restorative justice programs on a broad scale. Many municipalities and some states already offer restorative justice programs, but these remain small, and the overwhelming majority of Americans convicted of a crime as well as those they harmed have no access to them. Thus, more local, state, and federal funding for comprehensive and integrated restorative justice programs is desperately needed. Access to these programs will simultaneously create opportunities for further restorative justice research, which will allow us to gain a better sense of its full range of uses. As we improve our understanding of the applicability of restorative justice interventions, state and federal policy should be reoriented to divert those likely to be helped by restorative justice away from the traditional criminal justice system.

This road is bound to be long. But if we walk it, we just might uncover a way to tackle America’s mass incarceration crisis, make our streets and homes safer, and heal individuals and communities affected by crime—and surely that’s worth a shot.

Photo by Laura Gilchrist on Flickr is licensed under Creative Commons


Yuliya Shyrokonis is a first-year student in the University of Michigan Joint Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science studying domestic and sexual violence. She is interested in researching novel interventions for perpetrators and survivors of violence.