Restorative Justice & Restorative Practices

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in the specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.

Howard Zehr in The Little Book of Restorative Justice, 2002.

The American criminal justice system treats crimes as a violation of the law. The focus is on punishing those who violate the law. Restorative Justice focuses on repairing harm and responding to the needs of all stakeholders - the victims, the offenders, those close to them, and the larger community. By involving the victim and the offender in determining the outcome, both gain a sense of closure and may be more fully reintegrated back into the community.

Restorative justice is not mediation. The issue of guilt or innocence is not decided in a restorative justice approach. Offenders who participate in a restorative justice process have already admitted their role in the commission of the offense and are ready to take responsibility for it.

The CORA Good Shepherd Mediation has offered four models of restorative dialogue:

  1. Community Group Conferencing
  2. Victim-Offender Conferencing
  3. Restorative Circles
  4. Family Group Decision Making

Led by trained facilitators, restorative dialogues are voluntary group meetings. By focusing on the harm caused by the offense participants gain a stronger understanding of the incident and how people have been directly impacted. Restorative dialogues provide deeper opportunities for individuals to be meaningfully accountable for their actions and allow parties to work together to heal and plan how to "make things right." Using Restorative practices allows participants to strengthen themselves and the larger community, and significantly reduces the likelihood of future offenses.

Restorative dialogues may be adapted to family planning, community planning and prevention on a broad range of topics. A willingness to participate is the first requirement to begin a restorative justice process.

Community Group Conferencing

Community Group Conferencing is a facilitated group dialogue that includes the offending person, the victim and any support people the parties would like to include. Led by trained facilitators, the dialogue focuses on the offense, how people have been affected by the offense and what actions must be taken to repair the harm to the greatest extent possible. The goal of Community Group Conferencing is to repair the initial harm and reduce the likelihood of future harms being committed. For situations where the victim or offending person chooses not to participate, an alternate process called Family Group Conferencing can be used so the party, their family and support people can work together to discuss the incident and identify how to repair the harm.

Restorative Circles

With its roots in Native American culture, the Circle process involves the offending person, the victim and any support people the parties would like included. The dialogue focuses on the offense, the harm people have experienced and what actions should be taken to repair the harm to the greatest extent possible.

Like other restorative processes, Circles place as high a priority on listening as outward participation. The dialogue is led by trained facilitators called "Keepers." A Circle Keeper offers questions to the group. A "talking piece" is passed around to each member in the Circle. The person holding the talking piece has the floor to speak uninterrupted. Members of the Circle may choose to speak or pass their turn. Through this intentional process of sharing and listening, participants are invited to be vulnerable and get to the root of the issue at hand.

Victim Offender Conferencing (VOC)

This restorative justice process offers juvenile offenders and those they have harmed an opportunity to meet face to face in a structured, secure environment to facilitate restoration, healing, and reconciliation, and/or to negotiate restitution or symbolic restitution. If the victim declines the invitation to conference with the offender, the offender's family participates in parent-youth conference where the discussion centers on the consequences of the youth's actions to the youth, the victim, the family, and the community. VOC offers offenders between the ages of 10 and 18 an opportunity to take responsibility and be held accountable for their actions within a framework that balances the needs and responsibilities of victims, offenders, and the community.

In a 2008 research study assessing the attitudes and values of individuals who participated in Victim Offender Conferencing at CORA GSM, participants report: (1) a high rate of overall satisfaction with the process; (2) satisfaction with the agreements reached during the meetings; (3) that they personally benefited from participating in the VOC process; (4) that they played an important role in the process; and (5) they had an opportunity to tell their story.

A 2008 recidivism study of the 98 juvenile offenders who have participated in the Victim Offender Conferencing Program at CORA GSM over the past 2 1/2 years, reveals that only 10.2% have committed a new delinquent act. Juvenile offenders who do not participate in VOC or any other diversion program in Philadelphia have a 44.4% recidivism rate. This demonstrates the VOC program's potential for helping to curb the cycle of violence in our community.

Family Group Decision-Making

Family Group Decision Making is a facilitated decision-making process designed to support families and youth in crisis. The process has been used successfully in many areas, including child welfare, school discipline, and juvenile justice. The participants include the family or care-givers, extended family members, representatives from the court and social services, victims (in juvenile justice situations), and other community resources (e.g., teachers, faith leaders, friends). The process engages participants to express their concerns, hopes, dreams and ideas for change by promising confidentiality, empowers families, and values their input. Family Group Conferences are family-centered; the process adapts to the unique needs, perspective, traditions, and culture of the family, rather than forcing the family to fit into a scripted, generic model created by the system. Decisions are reached by consensus of all the participants; not by a majority or official decree.

Who are the Facilitators?

Family Group Conferences are facilitated by experienced, impartial Restorative Justice Facilitators who have received training in restorative practices, consensus-building, facilitating, and Family Group Decision-making.

What are the goals?

Based on the New Zealand restorative justice model, the CORA Good Shepherd Mediation Family Group Conferencing model has six goals:

  1. Diversion - Keep young people out of the juvenile justice and dependency stream.
  2. Accountability - Offenders must take responsibility and be held accountable for their actions, and to repair the harm caused by their actions.
  3. Victim Involvement - When there is a victim involved, the victim's needs must be addressed, and the victims must have the opportunity to be involved in the conference and be a part of deciding the outcomes, if they choose to do so. They may be present for all or part of the conference, decline the invitation to participate, send a representative, or send information to be read or distributed to the group.
  4. Family Centered - The family and their unique needs are central to the conference design. The goal is to strengthen the family to ensure that they can support and live up to the decisions reached as a result of the Family Group Conference. The family is involved in all aspects of the conference, including inviting participants, brainstorming options, and decision-making.
  5. Consensus Decision-making - All decisions are reached by consensus. Any member may block consensus or stand aside for the good of the group.
  6. Due process - The family members' rights are paramount. They may have legal representatives present to ensure that their legal rights are protected.

What does the process look like?

  • Convening - intake, scheduling, setting the stage
  • Opening the Conference - introductions, centering, overview of agenda, goals and objectives
  • Information Sharing - participants tell their stories, sharing what happened and what they would like to see happen as a result of the conference
  • Refreshment Break - optional
  • Family Deliberation - the facilitator and the family caucus and develop a plan of action
  • Consensus - All of the participants reconvene in a joint session where the proposal is presented to all participants, after which it is discussed and, sometimes, refined
  • Agreement - the final plan is adopted by consensus. Those who oppose parts of the plan may either stand aside for the good of the group, or block consensus.
  • Closing - the participants confirm their commitment to the plan

What are the Benefits of Family Group Decision-making?

  • Self-determination - The family is empowered to make the decisions that will affect their life. Research demonstrates that people who are involved in reaching decisions are more likely to live up to them than if they are ordered by an authority to do something
  • Support - The community comes together to support the family to ensure that they have the resources to do what they need to do to succeed
  • Understanding - Family members and victims (in juvenile justice situations) are given a voice to express their perspective on the situation and hear the perspectives of others involved. The facilitator enhances communication to ensure that everyone is heard and understood.
  • Safety - The facilitator provides a safe place where participants feel comfortable sharing and participating without fear of being harshly criticized, blamed, shamed, or intimidated into agreeing to do things they know won't work for them.
  • Community Involvement - Inviting the community to be involved empowers members to effectively address issues of concern and support community members in need.