Restorative Justice Works

The benefits of restorative justice in the criminal justice system


Restorative Justice Works

Restorative Justice (RJ) programs offer vital, effective alternatives to the traditional retributive, adversarial approach to criminal or harmful behaviour — yet remain underused by counsel and other criminal justice stakeholders across British Columbia.

RJ describes a wide range of theories, practices and processes intended to function as an alternative or complement to the existing criminal justice system to deal with harmful conduct and its impacts. RJ seeks to repair harm to individuals and communities by providing an opportunity for those involved or affected by the harmful conduct (or “crime”) to discuss the circumstances, causes, and impacts of the conduct, and to address the needs of the individual and communities involved.

While RJ takes many different forms, all require the full participation of the victim and offender, in the spirit of relationship-building, reconciliation and developing agreement around the desired outcome. In addition to victims and offenders, RJ programs also generally involve their respective networks, justice agencies and members of the community, and sometimes spiritual or religious leaders.

General RJ principles include:

  1. Crime is a violation of people, communities and relationships rather than a violation against the sovereign, the state or the law;
  2. Victims and communities are integral to dealing with crime, as their perspectives and needs are key in addressing such harmful conduct;
  3. Communities have a responsibility for the well-being of all their members, including victims and offenders; and
  4. All human beings (victims and offenders alike) have dignity and worth.

The benefits of RJ are numerous, including the fact it may respond more effectively to frustrations with the conventional criminal justice system than criminal prosecutions. For example, sexual violence is under-reported, and survivors often express that the investigative and prosecutorial processes are themselves harmful and disempowering. In contrast, research suggests that victim participation in RJ may help improve their psychological wellbeing by reducing symptoms of PTSD and stress. This may be because RJ places greater emphasis on victim participation and choice in the process than typical of conventional criminal prosecution cases. Additionally, research suggests that as many as one in four victims of sexual assault are interested in RJ.

An RJ approach is also effective in other ways. Twenty years of Canadian data show that RJ leads to greater victim and offender satisfaction than in the traditional court system, and that offenders are more likely to comply with agreements reached through RJ than through court-ordered restitution. Further, RJ is significantly less expensive than prosecutions, although this may be partly owed to the fact that RJ programs are often volunteer-run. Nonetheless, RJ has proven to be effective, and its broader use has been strongly encouraged by the Supreme Court of Canada as early as 1999 in R. v. Gladue.

At the pre-charge stage, police can make referrals to community accountability programs, of which there are 42 in B.C. If charges are laid, Crown and defence counsel should consider whether their cases are appropriate for RJ, what programs may be available in their area, and how to best advocate for an RJ diversion. We invite all practitioners to learn more at CBABC’s upcoming webinar, “Restorative Justice in the Legal Landscape,” led by Gillian Lindquist, executive director of Restorative Justice Victoria and Clare Jennings, Crown counsel, which will take place during RJ Week in November 2023.

For additional information on the RJ programs available in your area, please go here.

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