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Background and purpose of this paper

Restorative justice represents a departure from formal responses to crime and its adoption in Western cultures emerged from a growing dissatisfaction with these traditional responses. Restorative justice practices seek to repair the harm caused by crime but the term has suffered from its own popularity and become something of a catchall for all non-traditional approaches to justice. The purpose of this report is twofold; to describe and provide an overview of restorative justice programs in Australia in order to build on Heather Strang’s 2001 review and provide an assessment of current and future issues facing restorative justice practice.

Scope of the paper

While the understanding of what restorative justice encompasses varies greatly (and is discussed in section one), as was the case in Strang’s 2001 report, this review scope is limited to ‘programs involving meetings of victims, offenders and communities to discuss and resolve an offence’ (Strang 2001: 5). Thus, this report includes circle sentencing, to take one example, but does not include other Indigenous courts such as the Koori, Nunga and Murri courts. While the latter may have restorative elements or be broadly labelled as such, reparation of harm is not approached in the same manner as in those programs that seek to achieve it by bringing victims and offenders together. In fact, in the example given, the role of the victim is technically the same as in a traditional court setting (although, the experience of victims in such courts may vary significantly and be more positive than experiences in traditional court processes) and falls outside the definition of restorative justice used in this paper.

Further, although various restorative justice practices are used in other settings, such as care and protection matters, within schools to deal with issues such as bullying and within workplaces to resolve disputes (see Roche 2006 for a discussion of the use of restorative justice in a range of regulatory fields), this paper focuses on their use within the criminal justice system.

Report structure

The report is based on a review of the existing knowledge on restorative justice in the Australian criminal justice system available in the academic and grey literature between January 2002 and 30 October 2013. The report divided into the following sections:

  • section one—a brief background, including a discussion of what constitutes restorative justice;
  • section two—an overview of restorative justice programs (youth conferencing, circle and forum sentencing, and victim–offender mediation) currently operating across Australia;
  • section three—summary of the literature regarding the impact of restorative justice, with a focus on findings regarding reoffending and satisfaction among participants; and
  • section four is divided into two parts:
    • an assessment based on available literature of whether the issues set out by Strang in 2001 are still relevant today; and
    • a discussion of future challenges—issues still faced by restorative justice programs today.