RJ and the Criminal Justice System

There are many discussions about where RJ fits into. Some see RJ as an extension of the criminal justice system whereas others emphasize the idea of RJ as a philosophy of life, which should never allow to be co-opted by the criminal justice system but function rather proactively than simply reactively, as discussed under “RJ Practices”.

It is certainly no easy discussion and there are hardly any final answers to these fundamental questions. The danger is that RJ loses its values and ideological basis when included into the criminal justice system, since the state has the power to impose its own agenda. This can lead to RJ becoming part of a punitive agenda instead of a driving force that tries to transform the criminal justice system from within, while offering a more restorative form of justice (Levrant et al., 1999).

On one hand, the criminal justice system tries to deter people from committing crimes through retribution (punishment) and even incapacitation. These are externally imposed sanctions that try to inflict pain and thus deter people from committing crimes. The question remains how realistic this aim is, considering the high recidivism rates. Restorative justice, on the other hand, seeks to achieve a desistance that derives from an intrinsic motivation.

As offenders get to know their victims, or victims of similar crimes, hear their stories, start to understand the effect crime has on individuals and the pain it causes, they are challenged to take responsibility for their actions. Through this process, it is possible that this intrinsic motivation starts to grow within them, which helps them to desist from future offending. Already these two approaches of achieving deterrence seem to present opposites and do not easily fit together.

Therefore, it becomes easily noticeable that much consideration needs to be given to the particular context in which restorative justice is to operate, within the criminal justice system, to prevent co-optation. Most probably there are no universal answers to how this can be achieved. It requires, thus, sensitivity towards stakeholders; a clear value based foundation and clear-cut aims to avoid losing out of sight the true purpose of the restorative philosophy. Further, it is important to include restorative justice as early as possible into our societal processes and institutions, remembering that restorative justice is a philosophy of life and justice, rather than a philosophy of punishment. One of its strong qualities is to build healthy and strong relationships and communities, offering new ways of dealing with conflicts and helping to prevent destructive conflicts.