The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: A Meta-Analysis

1. Introduction

Current activity at governmental and community levels suggests that restorative justice, in its many forms, is emerging as an increasingly important element in mainstream criminological practice. While first discussed in the 1970s by both Barnett (1977) and Eglash (1977) in the context of restitution, restorative justice has been more clearly integrated into criminological thinking through such works as Braithwaite (1989), Marshall (1985), Umbreit (1994a) and Zehr (1990). Rather than focussing on the traditional rehabilitation versus retribution debate, many researchers and policy makers now consider restorative justice and, more precisely the concept of restoration, as a valid third alternative (Zehr, 1990). Numerous countries have adopted restorative approaches, including Canada, England, Australia, Scotland, New Zealand, Norway, the United States, Japan and several European countries (Hughes & Mossman, 2001).

Despite the increased attention given to restorative justice, the concept still remains somewhat problematic to define as numerous responses to criminal behaviour may fall under the “ restorative umbrella. ” The term has been used interchangeably with such concepts as community justice, transformative justice, peacemaking criminology and relational justice (Bazemore & Walgrave, 1999). Although a universally accepted and concise definition of the term has yet to be established, Tony F. Marshall’s definition appears to encompass the main principles of restorative justice: “ Restorative justice is a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future ” (cited in Braithwaite, 1999, p. 5).

Essentially, the restorative justice paradigm begins with the premise that crime is a violation of people and relationships (Zehr, 1990) rather than merely a violation of law. The most appropriate response to criminal behaviour, therefore, is to repair the harm caused by the wrongful act (Law Commission, 2000). As such, the criminal justice system should provide those most closely affected by the crime (the victim, the offender and the community) an opportunity to come together to discuss the event and attempt to arrive at some understanding about what can be done to provide appropriate reparation.

According to Llewellyn and Howse (1998), the main elements of the restorative process involve voluntariness, truth telling and a face-to-face encounter. Consequently, the process should be completely voluntary for all participants; the offender needs to accept responsibility for the harm and be willing to openly and honestly discuss the criminal behaviour; and the participants should meet in a safe and organized setting to collectively agree on an appropriate method of repairing the harm.

Models of restorative justice can be grouped into three categories: circles, conferences and victim-offender mediations (VOM). While somewhat distinct in their practices, the principles employed in each model remain similar[1]. A restorative justice program may be initiated at any point in the criminal justice system and need not be used simply for diversionary purposes. Currently, there are five identified entry points into the criminal justice system where offenders may be referred to a restorative justice program:

  1. police (pre-charge)
  2. Crown (post-charge)
  3. courts (pre-sentence)
  4. corrections (post-sentence)
  5. parole (pre-revocation)

Proponents of restorative justice claim that the process is beneficial to both victims and offenders by emphasizing recovery of the victim through redress, vindication and healing, and by encouraging recompense by the offender through reparation, fair treatment and habilitation (Van Ness & Strong, 1997). In the process of coming together to restore relationships, the community is also provided with an opportunity to heal, reconstitute and strengthen itself through the reintegration of victims and offenders (Llewellyn & Howse, 1998).

Despite the intuitive appeal of restorative justice, it is imperative to fully evaluate the impact of this approach on several important outcomes. Previous evaluation research focussing on this area has ranged from purely anecdotal accounts to more rigorous designs using comparison groups and, in some cases, random assignment into control and treatment groups (Bonta, Wallace-Capretta, & Rooney, 1998). These studies have examined the impact of restorative justice on victim and offender satisfaction, restitution compliance, recidivism, procedural fairness, as well as several others.

Given that the field of restorative justice research has been maturing, a need existed to aggregate the present body of empirical knowledge. In this regard, several authors have recently provided comprehensive literature reviews of this area of research (Braithwaite, 1999; Latimer & Kleinknecht, 2000; Marshall, 1999). Summarizing the research through narrative or qualitative approaches, however, may fail to objectively analyse the available data and draw the appropriate conclusions. Cooper and Rosenthal (1980) directly tested the reliability of synthesizing literature through narrative reviews by providing test subjects with a set of seven studies that measured the relationship between two variables. Despite the fact that the set of studies showed a clear statistically significant relationship between the variables, 73 percent of the reviewers found limited or no support for the hypothesis. This suggested that traditional narrative reviews suffer a considerable loss of power and that the incidence of Type II errors may be common. In addition, the criteria for selecting literature for a narrative review are rarely systematic and consistent. The introduction of meta-analytic techniques, however, has marked a major step forward in summarizing research by providing a more objective method of aggregating knowledge.


[1] For a more detailed discussion of the nature and principles of restorative justice, and the core program models, see Restorative Justice in Canada: A Consultation Paper (May 2000) developed by the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Working Group on Restorative Justice and available from the Department of Justice Canada (http://canada.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/pcvi-cpcv/cons.html ).

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