Can restorative justice cut prison numbers?

William R Wood
Monday, 23 February 2015

Over the last three decades restorative justice (RJ) has emerged from a small set of youth justice alternatives to a widely institutionalised set of justice practices. While RJ approaches vary by region, at the least they generally allow victims an opportunity to meet face-to-face with offenders and, when appropriate, for parties to decide how to best address harms caused to victims.

Restorative justice goals vary, but can be conceptualised on micro, meso, and macro levels. While micro claims regarding its usefulness for victims and opportunities for offender reintegration have been more thoroughly researched, many of its more macro claims have not.

One claim made by some advocates is that RJ may serve as a means of redress to the growth in prison populations in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. RJ has its roots in part within the prison abolition movement, and from its inception in the 1970s such claims have appeared consistently enough so that they are often used as a means of legitimising its use over other social responses to crime.  

Two arguments regularly set forth are that restorative practices can function as a viable alternative to incarceration, and that RJ may reduce recidivism, in turn lowering prison rates. However, neither of these arguments holds up under closer scrutiny.

The earliest RJ programmes developed in the 1970s were envisioned as an alternative to the youth justice system. Programmes in Ohio and Indiana in the early 1980s also saw RJ used as an alternative to incarceration. Since this time, however, RJ has largely become a part of formal criminal justice practices and sanctions, not an alternative to them. This institutionalisation of RJ has seen few examples of its use as an alternative to incarceration. Some programmes do exist, but they run counter to the larger use of RJ within youth diversion or with less serious offenders.

No English speaking countries have legislated the use of RJ for more serious offenders with the exception of New Zealand, which in 1989 implemented the use of Family Group Conferencing for youth offenders as part of larger changes towards a diversionary approach to youth justice that severely delimited the use of custodial placements.

The second problem regarding recidivism follows the trend of RJ being used predominately for youth offending or for lessor offences. While there is a growing body of research suggesting that RJ may reduce reoffending, such decreases do not readily translate into decreases in incarceration for the reason that most of these offenders are unlikely to go to prison

Some research from the UK and Australia has found that RJ may in fact work better with more serious offenders, but to date its use here has been limited. Two crucial questions regarding the future of RJ is whether it will be adopted by policymakers as a viable response to more serious crime, and whether RJ can demonstrate further efficacy along these lines.

The use of RJ with serious offenders has seen more development within prisons than use as an alternative to them, as RJ programmes within prisons have grown significantly in the last two decades. Most do not involve direct meetings between victims and offenders, but many do focus on the development of awareness of harms and empathy towards victims, as well on harms caused to family members and the community in relation to release and reintegration. Several of these programmes have claimed success in reducing recidivism, but there is a lack of empirical research to support these claims.

A focus on the effectiveness of behavioural changes, even with more serious or incarcerated offenders misses a larger point however, which is that prison growth in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US has occurred over some of the most protracted decreases in violent crime on record. Reasons for this growth vary across countries, but by and large have come as a result of social–structural drivers, not from changes in offending behaviours. As such, interventions focused primarily on changes in offending behaviours can hope to have a modest impact at best.

Finally, while there is not a lot of evidence that RJ has been used to reduce prison populations, there is also a lot that remains unknown. We do not know the more disparate effects of RJ over the life course of offenders, for example, which may have outcomes that have not been captured in existing research.

Moreover, while its impact on incarceration may be negligible, it is another thing to say RJ doesn’t work. In terms of bringing victims into the criminal justice system for example, even where RJ has not been ideal in many cases, it is also a significant improvement from past practices. Claims about efficacy in this regard need to be clear about corresponding definitions of success.

William R Wood is Lecturer at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Southport, Australia

This comment piece is based on a longer article; Why restorative justice will not reduce incarceration published in the British Journal of Criminology (subscription required).