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  • Restorative Justice: Some Facts and History
  • Marilyn Armour (bio)

In the United States, the criminal justice system is undergirded by a thirty-year era of “get tough” policies that have bred high rates of recidivism, a focus on punishing lawbreaking rather than attending to the harm experienced by crime victims, and ever-increasing expenditures that exceed amounts spent on education and health in some states’ budgets.

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The number of people incarcerated, on parole, and on probation in the United States roughly equals the populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston combined. And then there’s that extralegal prison at Guantánamo.

Under the current system, over 6.7 million adults or 3.1 percent of the adult population is behind bars, on probation, or on parole. Research shows that incarceration—instead of curbing crime—makes nonviolent offenders into violent criminals and is a revolving door in and out of prison. Yet we continue to spend over $52 billion a year on corrections. The overuse of prison and extended probation casts a long shadow that devastates families and communities throughout the country. For example, African American men are imprisoned at six times the rate for whites. This disproportionality severs offenders from their children, who become the hidden or forgotten victims of crime today and are too often the newly incarcerated tomorrow. Our criminal justice system also burdens many ex-offenders with a felony record, which robs them of employment and leads many into homelessness, vagrancy, and future criminal behavior, in addition to robbing the state of possible income tax revenues.

This is an out-of-control system that is fed, ominously, by students who are referred to alternative education programs. In Texas alone, the 100,000 students referred to such programs annually are five times more likely to drop out than their peers in mainstream schools, making them probable candidates for the school to prison pipeline. Roughly 80 percent of prison inmates never finished high school.

As a society, we are in desperate need of a different approach to the problems created by crime and social injustice—an approach that puts energy into the future, not the past, an approach that begins with who has been hurt and what their needs may be, and finishes with giving wrongdoers a way back instead of guaranteeing them a lifetime of hardship.

What Restorative Justice Offers

Restorative justice is a fast-growing state, national, and international social movement and set of practices that aim to redirect society’s retributive response to crime. Restorative [End Page 25] justice views crime not as a depersonalized breaking of the law but as a wrong against another person. It attends to the broken relationships between three players: the offender, the victim, and the community. Accordingly, restorative justice seeks to elevate the role of crime victims and community members; hold offenders directly accountable to the people they have harmed; and restore, to the extent possible, the emotional and material losses of victims by providing a range of opportunities for dialogue, negotiation, and problem solving. Moreover it views criminal acts more comprehensively than our judicial system because it recognizes how offenders harm victims, communities, and even themselves by their actions.

The ultimate aim of restorative justice is one of healing. If survivors of crimes receive appropriate emotional and material reparation, the harm can be redressed; by seeking to repair the damage caused, the offender can be reconciled with the victim and reintegrated back into his or her social and familial networks; and through such reconciliation and reintegration, community harmony has a chance to be restored. This manner of healing gives the actual victims and the community, as well as the offenders, the opportunity to take an active part in the justice process instead of a traditionally passive role.

History and Development of the Restorative Justice Movement

Restorative justice is a young field that emerged during the 1970s as alternative approaches to the court process, such as alternative dispute resolution, were becoming a national trend. It emerged alongside the victims’ rights movement, which argued for greater involvement of crime victims in the criminal justice process, as well as for...