Restorative justice in social work

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Connecting hands of restorative justice.

The practice of Restorative justice offers an alternative approach for dealing with harm caused by crime.[1] It uses a three-dimensional approach that includes the victim, the offender, and the community.[2] Restorative justice programs are used as a method of improving victim and/or offender satisfaction, increasing offender compliance with restitution, and decreasing the recidivism of offenders as an alternative to traditional criminal justice methods of response (i.e., incarceration, probation, court-ordered restitution, etc.).[1] The current approach to crime, as Stinchcomb and Fox (1999) point out, “does little to reinforce any sense of either personal responsibility on the part of the offender or personal involvement in the justice process on the part of the victim."[3] Restorative justice practices in social work are often geared towards cultivating alternative spaces, which value personal responsibility and involvement.


Latimer, Dowden, and Muise (2005) define restorative justice as:

A voluntary, community-based response to criminal behavior that attempts to bring together the victim, the offender, and the community, in an effort to address the harm caused by the criminal behavior.[1]

The fundamental premise of the restorative justice paradigm states that crime is a violation of people and relationships rather than just a violation of law.[4] A violation of relationships requires a restoration process which incorporates voluntariness, truth telling, and a face-to-face encounter.[5]

Models of restorative justice can be grouped into three categories: circles, conferences, and victim-offender mediations. The principles upheld in each remain relatively similar.[1]

Circles, which are often called peacemaking, sentencing or talking circles, are "a method of communication and problem solving derived from aboriginal and Navajo traditions as a community-based way to resolve conflict."[6]
Conferences are sometimes referred to as restorative conferences or family group conferences. They involve "extensive pre-conference preparation with the assistance of a facilitator and ultimately allows for family members of the victim and offender to meet in person to express their thoughts and feelings as a way to heal the pain of wrongdoing."[6]
Victim-Offender Mediation (VOM) is "a face-to-face meeting involving a trained mediator, crime victim, and person who committed the crime."[6] During this contact, the offender and the victim might share their experiences and feelings surround the event.[6]

Methods of restorative justice benefit both victims and offenders by emphasizing the recovery of the victim through redress, vindication, and healing and by encouraging recompense by the offender through reparation, fair treatment, and habilitation.[7] In the process of coming together to restore relationships, the community is also provided with an opportunity to heal through the reintegration of victims and offenders.[5]


The history of restorative justice has its roots in the indigenous rituals of New Zealand communities where shaming of the offender was used as punishment for wrongdoings. Other communities—including African American, Latin@, Canadian Mennonite, and Native American—have also engaged in various restorative justice practices for many years.[6]

Howard Zehr is known as the grandfather of the Americanized restorative justice movement and refers to the three pillars of restorative justice:

  • Wrongs and offenses to victims mean that offenders need to be held accountable and responsible.
  • Restorative justice principles emphasize the importance of victims, offenders, and the community to be involved in a dialogue about what justice means in a particular case.[8]

The traditional justice system utilizes a one-dimensional adversarial approach with attention given primarily to the offender,[6] as opposed to the alternative approach, restorative justice, which provides a holistic approach including all involved in the injustice.

In 1994, Mark Umbreit founded the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the School for Social Work in the University of Minnesota. This was the first academic-based center for restorative justice that sponsored both research and training in the field. Having already been established in the School for Social Work since the early 1980's, Umbreit developed the Humanistic Approach to Mediation, emphasizing how restorative dialogue humanizes the resolution process as parties connect more deeply with the humanity of the other party. Mediators, through deep listening and mindfulness, learn to practice an indirect approach to facilitation by knowing when to step out of the way so that victimized and offending parties can experience direct, heart-to-heart conversation.

Application in social work[edit]

Restorative justice through a social work lens exists as an alternative to punitive methods of justice. It works to humanize all people involved, including ones being held responsible for an injustice. Social justice is one of the core values of social work. As a core value, it calls for more restorative methods of justice to be adopted, in order to break off the continuation of marginalizing systems, such as the prison-industrial complex. Restorative methods of justice seek peace and reconciliation.[9] They focus attention on the harm done by an injustice and repairing the hurt caused, as opposed to the focus being on punishing the perpetrator of the injustice.[9] It is in accordance with social work as a field to redistribute justice and counteract the present societal state of affairs.

Restorative justice practices have the potential to decrease recidivism of offenders, fewer long-term effects of victimization, and strengthening of the aggregate well-being of a community. This three-dimensional approach to handling interpersonal injustices can be beneficial for all parties involved.[1]

Van Wormer (2002) describes restorative justice as a practice requiring societal institutions to work towards repairing the damage incurred by those who have been injured, while reintegrating perpetrators into society. Additionally, those most directly affected by crime (including victims and family members) should have the voluntary opportunity to participate in the response to crime.[10][11]

Restorative justice methods[edit]

The three types of restorative justice practices specific to social work are victim–offender mediation (VOM), family group conferencing (FGC), and peacemaking circles.[12][13]

Van Wormer and Bednar (2002) offer a bridge between restorative justice and the strengths perspective, which is a widely used social work approach that takes into consideration client capabilities and positive characteristics as a vehicle for change and coping. For example, an integrated theoretical understanding applied to battering males is termed “the restorative-strengths approach” and offers a new application for social work practice utilizing restorative justice practices.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Latimer, Jeff; Craig Dowden; Danielle Muise (2005). "The effectiveness of restorative justice practices: A meta-analysis". The Prison Journal. 85 (2): 127–144. doi:10.1177/0032885505276969.
  2. ^ Bazemore, Gordon (1999). "Crime victims, restorative justice and the juvenile court: Exploring victim needs and involvement in the response to youth crime". International Review of Victimology. 6 (4): 295–320. doi:10.1177/026975809900600404.
  3. ^ Stinchcomb, Jeanne (1999). Introduction to Corrections. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. ^ Zehr, Howard (1990). Changing lenses : a new focus for crime and justice (3. ed., [Nachdr.]. ed.). Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press. ISBN 978-0836135121.
  5. ^ a b Llewellyn, Jennifer; Robert L. Howse (1999). "Restorative justice: A conceptual framework". Prepared for the Law Commission of Canada.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Gumz, Edward J.; Cynthia L. Grant (1 January 2009). "Restorative Justice: A Systematic Review of the Social Work Literature". Families in Society. 90 (1): 119–126. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.3853.
  7. ^ Van Ness, Daniel (1997). Restoring justice. Cincinnati, Ohio: Anderson Pub. ISBN 978-1583605202.
  8. ^ Zehr, Howard (2002). The little book of restorative justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. ISBN 978-1561483761.
  9. ^ a b Van Wormer, Katherine (2003). "Restorative justice: a model for social work practice with families". The Journal of Contemporary Social Services. 84 (3): 441–448. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.127.
  10. ^ Van Wormer, Katherine (2002). "Restorative justice and social work". Social Work Today. 2 (1): 16–21.
  11. ^ Tschudi, Finn; Sissel Reichelt (2004). "Conferencing when therapy is stuck". Journal of Systemic Therapies. 23 (1): 38–52. doi:10.1521/jsyt.
  12. ^ "Peacemaking Circles - Restorative Justice in Action - Lancaster, PA".
  13. ^ Umbreit, Mark S.; Robert B. Coates; Betty Vos (2004). "Victim‐offender mediation: Three decades of practice and research". Conflict Resolution Quarterly. 22 (1–2): 279–303. doi:10.1002/crq.102.
  14. ^ Van Wormer, Katherine; Susan G. Bednar (2002). "Working with male batterers: A restorative-strengths perspective". Families in Society. 83 (5): 557–565. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.66.