Criminal and Restorative Justice

There are crucial differences between restorative justice and criminal justice, since they represent two very different paradigms in regards to their understanding of crime, the participants involved and their purpose or objective. Van Ness (1997, p.10) draws a clear distinction:

“RJ views crime primarily as injury (rather than primarily as law breaking), and the purpose of justice as healing (rather than punishment alone). It emphasizes accountability of offenders to make amends for their actions, and focuses on providing assistance and services to the victims. Its objective is the successful reintegration of both victim and offender as productive members of safe communities”.

Restorative Justice understands healing as a broad concept, which may include healing from trauma but also the restoration of social ties and the reparation of broken relationships.

The understanding of crime

As stated above, for criminal justice, crime is understood as a violation of laws or rules, where culpability is determined and just deserts assigned to the guilty. In contrast, for RJ crime is

“a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. RJ involves the victims, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions, which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance”

(Zehr, 1990, p.181).

Understanding crime as harm or a violation of people and relationships requires a more wholesome response, a response that should be able to repair these broken relationships and heal the harm done.

Questions asked

The questions that guide both justice processes are significantly different.

Criminal justice asks:
Was a crime committed (or a rule broken)?
Who did it (who is the guilty individual)?
What do they deserve (in terms of punishment)?
Restorative Justice asks:
What is the harm and who was affected by it?
What are their needs?
Whose obligations are these?

(Zehr, 2002, p.20)

The questions asked by RJ lead to a completely different approach to the conflict situation and do not only apply to the harm experienced by the victims but seek to address also underlying core issues affecting the offenders.

By asking the questions “Who was harmed?” and “How are they affected?” RJ places the direct stakeholders at the center of the issue. By doing so, the people most directly affected by the crime are encouraged to participate actively in the justice process.