Australian Institute of Criminology

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Following the emergence of restorative justice practices in the 1990s and their widespread use in Australia and overseas, the body of research into the impact of such programs has grown steadily and now paints a picture of a range of processes that continue to evolve but that largely result in positive outcomes for both victims and offenders. The question ‘does it work?’ is asked of all interventions and in the criminal justice field this is most often answered by assessing the impact on reoffending. Yet the evidence for restorative justice remains mixed, despite the literature being replete with reports of high levels of victim satisfaction and perceptions that the process is fair. The critical issue here lies in the primary purpose of restorative justice. It is about repairing the harm caused by crime and as such, while reoffending is an important indication of a program’s impact on an offender, it does not necessarily influence the ability to repair the harm caused; that is, to address the impact of restorative justice processes on a victim. Further, while some significant issues remain, research conducted to date consistently demonstrates that restorative justice programs work at least as well as formal criminal justice responses.

Commentators have asked whether restorative justice practices can co-exist alongside formal criminal justice approaches and given the widespread acceptance of restorative justice, evident in the expansion of restorative justice to encompass adult offenders and more serious offences, this question seems to have been answered. Restorative justice practices provide an important supplement to the sanctions placed on criminal behaviour by the traditional criminal justice system. As Daly (2011: 241) advocates, ‘it is also important to move beyond the simple oppositional contrast of retributive and restorative justice’. It may be that perhaps too much has been made of the differences between traditional criminal justice and restorative justice processes.

What is certain is that where restorative justice is done well, it goes beyond what traditional responses can achieve and as a result, the potential impact upon individuals, communities and society is substantial. Restorative justice is about more than traditional notions of justice—it is about repairing harm, restoring relationships and ultimately, it is about strengthening those social bonds that make a society strong. Rather than pitting restoration against retribution and seeking to find the ‘best’ answer to addressing offending, restorative justice practices should be recognised as an additional response to offending; that is, restorative justice practices can be both ‘an alternative to, or an extension of’ traditional responses to criminal behaviour (KPMG 2010: 17). Perhaps in another decade or so, when the next review of restorative justice in Australia is compiled, debate and research in the area will have moved away from questions of ‘does it work’ to focus on how, when and for whom it works best.