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Home / Articles / Ending Domestic Violence / What Is Restorative Justice?

What Is Restorative Justice?

In many communities across the U.S., domestic violence survivors are being offered this alternative for justice, accountability

Survivor and perpetrator use restorative justice at shelter

Restorative justice has long been proposed as a way for victims of crime, their families and the community to find peace, healing or resolution. In many communities across the U.S., there is a growing trend to offer restorative justice to survivors as an option, either in place of or in addition to the criminal justice system. 

In the most recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, in 2022, a Restorative Practices Pilot Program was included with grant requests being accepted at the beginning of 2023. VAWA outlined several qualifications for restorative practices used among victim services groups including that the practice be “initiated by a victim of the harm on a voluntary basis without any evidence of coercion or intimidation …by any individual who committed the harm.” Opponents of restorative justice have voiced their fears that the option could potentially re-victimize survivors by falsely assuming a perpetrator is safe to have rational conversation with. Most, but not all, advocates believe that restorative justice is safe for victims in certain carefully vetted domestic violence cases.

Rosie Hidalgo, director of the Office on Violence Against Women, spoke recently at the Alliance for HOPE International 2024 Family Justice Center Conference in San Diego and called VAWA’s pilot program “an opportunity,” adding, “What we’re hearing from survivors and communities is that they do want other options…in working with those who cause harm.”  The VAWA pilot program is not intended to replace any criminal justice sanctions that an offender may face for harm caused but is intended to operate independently.

The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence also released a statement in support of VAWA’s funding of restorative justice practices. “Restorative justice recognizes that many survivors will never reach out to the criminal system for safety, and that for many who do, the system is re-traumatizing and does not provide needed support.” 

Those with the Partnership say that victim services have not always been equitable or accessible to all survivors. “We’ve seen tremendous interest from the field for this new approach, and recognition that our current system does not serve all survivors well, especially Black, Indigenous and Native, and survivors of color.”  

Alliance for HOPE International does not support restorative practices to be used in place of a prosecutor’s independent decision making on whether an abuser should face criminal charges in domestic violence cases. Alliance President Casey Gwinn says, “There is strong outcome evidence for restorative practices in juvenile justice related cases but there is still very little evidence that restorative practice can create accountability for rage-filled violent domestic violence offenders.”

What Do Restorative Justice Practices Look Like?

The roots of restorative justice can be found in the indigenous culture, which has long relied on peacemaking processes like talking circles or peace circles, also called healing circles, to bring disputing parties together to resolve conflict. In peace circles, the person who caused harm and the person who was harmed are joined by a facilitator. The process allows the person who was harmed to have a voice and to discuss the harm that was done. The person who caused harm is able to develop a plan for taking responsibility. 

In contemporary practices, this may be a multi-step process wherein the person who caused harm is first interviewed to see if there is a desire for accountability and healing. The person who was harmed is interviewed separately to discover what justice looks like to them and if a restorative justice practice is a route they want to take. A trained advocate may assess the safety of moving forward, at which point, the two parties, along with a facilitator, are brought together in a peace circle to discuss the harm and what accountability looks like going forward.

Another type of restorative justice is family group conferencing, which has roots in the family clan council in indigenous practices. This conference brings together the person who was harmed, the person who caused harm, as well as family, friends and any other support persons to take collective responsibility for helping to find healing or justice for both the victim and the offender. 

Advocates of Restorative Justice Say Prison Isn’t Helping the Cause

The indigenous people, along with many other marginalized groups, have long seen the prison system as an extension of power and control. For indigenous tribes, prison is no better than the boarding schools many were subjected to after the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in an effort to assimilate them into Eastern culture. For Black communities, the prison system is seen by many as simply an extension of slavery. For women who have survived domestic violence, too many find themselves behind bars for trying to protect themselves against an abuser. 

Meanwhile, statistics show that very few domestic violence offenders ever receive jail time—in one particular study, it was found that less than 2 percent of offenders arrested for domestic violence received even a day behind bars. And when they do, research has shown no evidence that incarceration reduces recidivism among domestic violence offenders, meaning that even those who go to prison are no more likely to be reformed than those who don’t. 

A New York Domestic Violence Organization Is Giving Survivors Options

Margarita Guzmán is the executive director of the Violence Intervention Program out of New York City. The shelter and advocacy group works primarily with Latina and Latinx survivors of domestic violence, the majority of whom are low-income immigrants with children, and many who are unhoused. She says they’ve been developing a restorative justice practice for the past three-and-a-half years as part of a collaborative with other agencies in the city. 

“We’ve got political perspectives that range from Blue Lives Matter to Black Lives Matter on our team. We all identified what we were afraid of in the community and how to create a tool to manage conflict in a different way.” 

She acknowledges the skepticism around restorative justice and groups herself among those who have had plenty of questions as to its safety and effectiveness. 

“This is a 180 from the strategies we’ve long relied on. Everything we’ve done for decades as advocates has shifted. It’s a hard thing to get your head around.”

For her organization, restorative justice practices are about giving power back to the survivor. 

“This is about what the survivor needs, what the survivor is looking for—both practical needs and what their healing journey means to them,” says Guzmán. She mentions survivors who co-parent with an abuser and want to work out a custody agreement but who don’t want to go to court “for a variety of reasons.” For them, the circle process might work. But she also recognizes that, “Many survivors, may never end up in a conversation with the person causing them harm,” adding that their goal is ultimately to “shift the power from systems to survivors and explore what solutions may work best for them outside of systems.”

Recidivism rates are often used as an indicator to gauge how well or not certain practices work in domestic violence justice. The Bureau of Justice Assistance released a statement last year saying restorative justice for general crime was shown to “reduce recidivism, increase victims’ satisfaction with the justice process and reduce the psychological trauma of crime. In regards specifically to youth, they say that a 2021 Department of Justice literature review found that “youth who participate in restorative justice programs are less likely to reoffend, compared with youths who are processed in the juvenile justice system."

However, other research found that recidivism rates for violent crimes were not significantly lowered with the use of restorative justice (however, lowered all the same). Guzmán says the marker of effectiveness, in her opinion, lies with the survivors. 

“Did the survivor feel heard? Did it increase their confidence? Did it create practical solutions? Our goal is not to specifically heal the person causing the harm. We see possibilities for the person causing the harm, but change is truly up to them,” Guzmán says.

The choice to utilize restorative justice is entirely up to the survivor, though there are situations where it is never appropriate. Many groups look at combining restorative justice with other healing modalities, and sometimes, that means turning to the criminal justice system.

“We know that there have been survivors whose lives have been saved by police and survivors whose lives have been saved from police. We serve all of them,” Guzmán says.

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