Restorative Justice: The New Way Forward

Restorative Justiceby Lisa M. Rea

Most of us know someone injured by crime. They are offenders, ex-offenders and their families, or crime victims and their families. How should we as a society view prisons, corrections, and justice? How should we respond in ways that seek to restore lives and transform individuals injured by crime?

Let me share a few snapshots of victims of crime and offenders from my own experience to help frame this issue. I began working in the field of restorative justice in 1992 for Justice Fellowship, a sister organization of Prison Fellowship, serving as its state director in California. Our mission was to work to reform the justice system by introducing restorative justice principles to the system through the legislative process.

Restorative justice is a new vision for the justice system that puts the crime victim in the center of the system while stressing offender account­ability to restore victims and communities as much as possible after crimes are committed. I was deeply troubled by the plight of the prisoner, seeing these individuals as some of the most forgotten men and women in society and often the most despised. I really did not know much about how the jus­tice system worked, but learned through many mentors and meeting both victims and offenders. Through this work I have developed a passion for restorative justice that does not lessen with time.

I felt it was important, if I were involved in legislative advocacy to pro­mote restorative justice, to go inside a prison first. I found a chaplain who was immediately receptive and set up an appointment to bring me into Cali­fornia’s Folsom State Prison. I was so nervous that first time I entered a prison that I had to find a convenience store after my visit for medicine to calm an upset stomach. I went into prison with a respected chaplain, so there cer­tainly was no threat of violence or danger to me. Yet, the experience was upsetting as the doors slammed shut, we went through the metal detector to get cleared, and inmates stared as I crossed “the yard” with the chaplain. I never had that experience of fear again. I guess after that I just learned the ropes. It became normal, or as close to normal as you get inside a prison.

Another snapshot. I visited an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. During this experience, I went in alone just as a visitor. There are no special privileges when you visit an inmate here in California, which is largely true around the globe, unless you are a public official or a special visiting guest. As I waited to go inside, I noticed how many women and children were waiting to see their loved ones or friends.

On one particular visit around Christmas time, I noticed the visiting room was like a microcosm of the outside world. The inmates and their families were trying to make things seem as normal as possible. The visiting room was decorated for Christmas with the usual holi­day fare you would find in an office on the outside. Children were running around as if they were playing outside. This was their normal. (The holiday situation would be much different today, for in California inmate visits with families and friends have become severely restricted to certain times and days.)

I remember thinking, as I watched these children, that this is the next generation. These children might very well become like their fathers or mothers—inmates of the state. They, too, might become all too familiar with living inside the walls of a prison.

Because restorative justice is victims-centered—it holds offenders accountable for wrongdoing, urging them to make things right, as much as possible, with their victims—I realized that I needed to learn far more about the pain experienced by crime victims. It is one thing to read the stories of victims of violent crime, but it is another thing to meet crime victims in person and hear them tell their stories.

Another snapshot. When Roberta Roper came from Maryland to speak at a justice reform conference where I also was speaking in 2000, we planned to meet for dinner. I knew a few details of how Mrs. Roper’s daughter Stephanie had been viciously murdered. That night at dinner I asked the simple ques­tion that is so important to ask a victim of crime, “Will you tell me your sto­ry?” Mrs. Roper explained the unimaginable violence that took her daughter away from her in 1982.

Stephanie’s car had broken down on a rural road not from far the family’s property as she was returning from college. She was kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered, and then the offenders set her car on fire. I will never forget the visceral effect of hearing this story from this distraught mother. Tears ran down my face during that meal. I have heard many stories from many crime victims, but the pain in the face of that mother was wrenching. I could only listen and sob. It struck me how often Mrs. Roper must tell this story and thus relive it herself each time.

A few years earlier after speaking at a restorative justice conference at Fresno Pacific University on the need for more opportunities to bring victims and offenders together, I was approached by a woman from the audience. She began to tell me her story. Her son had committed a heinous murder, killing the victim with a baseball bat. With great pain in her face, this mother explained how she tried to reach out to the family members of the victim of her son’s violence. She wanted to tell them how very sorry she was for her son’s horrible actions. When she reached out to the family in a courtroom setting, she was rebuffed, and it was a very painful moment for her. This mother of the offender told me how important it was to move the justice system towards restorative justice, to bring victims and offenders together to meet. I will never forget that day.

Last snapshot. Dan Van Ness, my friend and colleague at Prison Fellow­ship, forwarded to me an email from Steve Watt, a former Wyoming state trooper who almost died after being shot multiple times by a fleeing bank robber in 1982. Explaining that he had forgiven the man who shot him, Mr. Watt said in the email, “I have a story to tell.”

A Wyoming newspa­per account of the shooting was even more astounding than the email: it explained that Watt had offered the offender forgiveness, but not before Watt experienced anger and rage over the attack. The violent attack took away his childhood dream to be a law enforce­ment officer and left him with injuries that would plague him the rest of his life. Yet Watt now calls the offender, Mark Farnham, his friend. He believes that Farnham, who received a 55- to 75-year prison sentence for shooting and maiming a highway patrolman, has served enough time in prison and should be released.

While he was visiting in Northern California, I met Steve Watt at a res­taurant. This very large man, wearing a black patch over one eye, limped towards me with a big grin. One bullet had taken out his eye and the other four bullets had hit him up and down his spine.

I thought, “This is a picture of the walking wounded.” Some crime victims like Steve Watt wear the effects of violence on their bodies for all to see. Others like Roberta Roper are severely injured as well, but the effects of the violence are not immedi­ately visible. Steve told me the rest of his story that day over lunch—how he had felt after the violence, but also the steps he took towards reconciliation with the offender.

How did Steve get to a place where he had healed? How did he forgive? The testimonies of individuals like Steve Watt can help us evaluate the justice system and transform it for the better. Without the needed reforms, we are living with a dysfunctional justice system that injures victims, offenders, and communities.

Some might argue that our prison system was never meant to positively affect victims and communities. I will not analyze the original purpose of prisons in society, but we know that prisons have become something far dif­ferent than what they were intended to be. Most societies have incarcerated individuals who were deemed to be a violent threat to others, but the Unit­ed States prison system today has grown immensely beyond this rationale. As a result, the American state and federal prison population has expanded dramatically. During a twenty-year period when the general population grew less than 22%, the prison population more than doubled, from less than 700,000 in 1989 to over 1,500,000 in 2009. A total of 7,225,800 adults, or 3.1% of the U. S. adult population, were under correctional supervision—either on probation or parole, or in jail or prison—in 2009.1 With 743 per 100,000 of its citizens in detention, the U. S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.2 The financial costs, not to mention the social costs to communities, are staggering. In California, for instance, it costs about $47,000 to incarcer­ate one prison inmate for one year.3

Restorative justice principles invite us to reconsider the nature of crime: it is not an offense of a criminal against the state, but an offense committed by one individual (the offender) against other individuals (the victims). For this reason, the justice system should hold offenders accountable (as directly as possible) for restoring (as much as possible) the victims or their families. Restorative justice acknowledges that crime breaks the peace within com­munities. Offenders, therefore, must make things right with the community as well, if possible.

The American justice system, like most justice systems worldwide, does not work well for victims, offenders, and communities, which is why many people are seeking to embrace something new. Restorative justice provides the vision for change precisely because it brings to light the human impact of our failed policies. But it does not stop there. It proposes ways to build a bridge between the victim and the offender. Some might wonder whether victims would want contact of any kind with their offenders. However, crime victims increasingly are seeking that contact, largely because the current system does not adequately acknowledge the impact violent crime has on victims, or hold offenders accountable to their victims in meaningful ways.

The story of Stephen Watt illustrates how he sought to have contact with his offender. Some would say his story is an anomaly. Yet, throughout my work the number of victims who are seeking to participate in some kind of restorative justice dialogue is increasing. The Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), which I founded in 2001, sought to organize victims around the cause of restorative justice and allow them to tell the stories of their experience of restorative justice. As victims told their stories publicly to lawmakers and through the media, more victims wanted to learn about the value of restorative justice. Victims might choose restorative justice for dif­ferent reasons, but they had reached the same conclusion about the tradi­tional justice system: it was not working for them. Watt’s case was somewhat unique in that he did not formally participate in a victim offender dialogue program. He met his offender on his own, but with the support of a chap­lain and his wife.

Crime victims often speak of feeling left out of the justice system. Some have told me they feel used by the system, like they are just pawns in its game to convict and sentence the offender. Crime victims have questions that go unanswered unless there is some kind of contact with the offender. They want to ask questions such as these: Why was I, or my family, target­ed? How did my loved one die? Was she in pain? How long did it take for her to die? They want to know answers that only the offender knows. That is the primary reason that crime victims take part in a restorative jus­tice dialogue. They also express fears about the offender committing another crime against them or their family, when or if the offender is released. Vic­tims want to see offenders take responsibility for their actions; many hope offenders will express remorse. All these questions and concerns motivate victims to seek restorative justice because they hold out some hope for heal­ing, not closure—a word often used by the media, but used less often by victims themselves.

Today more programs are being created throughout the United States to respond to the needs of crime victims and assist them in experiencing restorative justice. These include in-prison programs like Bridges to Life and the Sycamore Tree Project that bring together (surrogate) victims and offenders to talk in small groups about crime.4 The value of in-prison restor­ative justice programs cannot be understated since it moves the justice sys­tem towards an orientation that acknowledges the effect of crime on victims.

When I directed the Texas Sycamore Tree Project, I had contact with each inmate who participated. I learned through these conversations that often inmates do not think about their victims. This should not surprise us at all, because the current system does not require that offenders consider the impact their crimes have on their victims. It sends offenders to prison to pay back the state or society; it does not require prison inmates to face their victims and seek to make things right with them. Many states prohibit and most all of them discourage contact between prison inmates and their vic­tims. Yet, it is precisely through this type of victim-offender dialogue that many offenders may express remorse to their victims, who are no longer faceless, and may be transformed by taking responsibility for their actions more directly. The transformation of offenders is evidenced by the reduc­tion of recidivism rates (i.e. offenders committing more crimes). Research also shows that victims experience greater satisfaction when they participate in restorative justice processes than through the traditional justice system.5

Restorative justice promises to move us away from warehousing offend­ers and toward a system that leads offenders to personal accountability and allows victims to heal. It needs the support of all who are committed to doing justice, to restoring the lives of victims, and to transforming the lives of offenders. It requires champions who advocate for public policy changes to make restorative justice a reality throughout our justice system.

Lisa M. Rea is a restorative justice and government relations consultant at Rea Consulting, founder of The Justice & Reconciliation Project, and blog correspondent for Prison Fellowship International.  The article originally appeared in the Center for Christian Ethics publication in 2012 and was submitted to the Vanguard by its author.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will

    We have had a number of requests on the Vanguard for clarification of the principles of restorative justice. I am very appreciative of this article which I think clearly lays out some important reasons for rethinking the philosophy behind our system of punishment with minimal if any consideration of restoration and rehabilitation.

    1. zaqzaq

      My questions were more directed to how it operates in the DA’s neighborhood court program.  The article gives some good information on the concepts of restorative justice, examples in the article all have distinct victims.  How does it work for a drug possession case which is one of the crimes that David had in his example.  Are victims participating in the DA’s program?  How do they do it without a victim, can it still be effective?  I re-posted one of my original comments below which the article does not address. One of my biggest questions is how do you advocate for the expansion of neighborhood court unless you have a clear understanding of how it works or is it even effective.

      1. Dave Hart

        In a nutshell, the Neighborhood Court Program (NHC) in Davis has deliberately been scaled to deal only with (1) mostly first time offenders (2) misdemeanors or infractions.  Without access to the actual data, I can tell you 95%+ of the cases are drunk in public, public urination, open container, and noise.  These are “victimless” in the sense that there is no particular person or business who has been affected like, for instance, shoplifting or vandalism.  In Davis, these first time offenders are again 95%+ young people, overwhelmingly UCD students, but also other college-age young people associating with the student scene.  To qualify for NHC, the offender does not contest the charges and NHC panelists are not there to determine guilt or pass a judgment.  The offender and panelists are there to (1) have a frank conversation about what happened, (2) the harms that affected the community and (3) to find a way for the offender to restore or offset those harms in a meaningful way so that the community can welcome the offender back.  I have served as a panelist for close to two years now, and I can tell you it can be difficult to summon up the energy to deal with these repetitive cases month after month in a way that gives each offender an open ear and fresh hearing.  On the other hand, interesting and redemptive behavior emerges from these sessions and it is definitely worth the sacrifice of two hours for a couple of times a month.

        The process:

        1.  In these sessions, the offender tells their story.  Depending on the “crime” we may see a police report filed by the arresting or citing officer.  The panelists can ask questions and try to get a full picture of not only what happened but what drives and motivates the offender.  I try to ask questions that give me an indication of what is important in life to the offender so that a meaningful restorative process can take place.

        2.  We address the harms to the community and people who live here.  We usually come up with half a dozen or more things that harm the community between the offender and the panelists.

        3.  We talk about what the offender could do to ‘make it right’ for him or herself and make it possible for the community to feel that the behavior won’t be repeated and that the offender will come out of the experience with insight into their own strengths and limitations.

        4. We write down what all of us, the offender and panelists agree is a workable restorative set of actions.  These actions are very open ended, but often utilize formal counseling services especially where alcohol is an issue.  But the actions can also be of a more personal nature.  It may seem a bit silly, but something as simple as a letter to Mom and Dad where family is more important that anything else to the offender can be a big deal.  This agreement, which we all sign, is then submitted to the Center for Intervention (CFI) that contracts with the DA’s office to monitor the agreement and its successful completion by a date certain.

        Everything that goes on in the NHC panel discussion with the offenders is confidential.  I am told that out of hundreds of these panels, only a handful have failed to fulfill the agreement and when that happens, their cases end up with the DA to process as usual.

        These relatively simple cases take a lot more personal energy than you might suppose.  I leave the room feeling the offender and the community actually end up in a better place as a result of the offense and their restorative plan of action in about 80% of the cases.  The other 20% I feel reasonably good about but harbor some small concern.  I have only felt very dubious in one case out of the 50 or so I have sat in on.  If they “do it again”, they will be out of luck in most cases.  I am told that in Davis, we have had a half dozen or so that have a repeat violation out of the two or three hundred cases.

        Hope that answers some of your general questions about how NHC operates from the perspective of a panelist. You can also read about it on the DA’s website:

        1. hpierce

          “… come out of the experience with insight into their own strengths and limitations.”  This line struck a strong “chord” with me.  I’ve been a youth soccer ref, and one of my mentors often asked, when I finished a game, “would you like a friendly assessment?” (of my refereeing)  I always said yes, as he was a person whom I trusted, and in fact, was one of my ‘instructors’.  He always told me two things…. one thing he thought I did really well, and one thing he suggested I ‘work on’, to do a better job next time.  That approach is a good thing to have in ‘the tool box’… not always the right tool, but when it is, very effective.

  2. Dave Hart

    I would like to know why.  Why when there is a powerful piece that contradicts the vengeful narrative of punishment in such an incontrovertible way that we do not have the pleasure of hearing from our normal coterie of … is the word troll out of bounds?  I’m sorry, I can’t think of a more charitable term.

    Three comments including mine…this is pretty sad and an abject lesson in reconsidering the anonymity policy for the Vanguard. This topic is far more deserving of thought and discussion than the MRAP, the plastic bag ban and the green bins. Yet all we have are crickets, in relative terms. Thanks for running this piece and it has value for the archives for some future time, perhaps, after anonymity has been cast aside and a thoughtful discussion can be had.

    1. David Greenwald

      It was a little unfortunate that the pieces ran up against each other – a hot topic, then two hot topics and three more reflective pieces. This is the type of piece that will probably gain reads over time, so I don’t really worry so much about that factor. On the other hand, I think the issue of militarization of the police is very critical as is gay rights. I get your point though and I’m always thinking about how to tweak or change our policy.

    2. hpierce

      Now that I’ve read this post from you, Dave Hart, and seeing your concern about anonymous postings, I’ll honor your wishes.

      Moderator, please remove my “troll post” on this subject, today 10:20.  I don’t want to further offend Dave, nor the VG posters who don’t feel that they need to remain anonymous to post.

      Thanks to Dave, I realize I was not contributing anything positive to the discussion.

  3. zaqzaq

    Dave Hart,

    I would agree that this is a more important big picture topic than the MRAP.  I posted the below as a question or series of questions about restorative justice and the neighborhood court program.   I think it is relevant to the discussion since David is once again proposing the expansion of neighborhood court.  This article is about restorative justice and prison sentences.  I do not believe the the existing neighborhood court program in this county is an alternative to a state prison sentence.  I believe it is lower level misdemeanors that could result in some jail time but more likely a fine.  The above article, although it discusses restorative justice, does not address any of my questions about the DA’s neighborhood court program.

    David,I am trying to keep an open mind on this but in doing some of the mental gymnastics I am getting confused as to how restorative justice actually works.  Pro restorative justice critics of the Neighborhood Court program are upset because it stops short of actually getting victims and offenders in the same room.  From that statement it appears that no victims have been included in the program.  Is that true?  It appears that they believe that victim participation is a required element of this program and that you cannot have restorative justice without the victim.  Is this a correct summary of these individuals?  Yet in your article the CCP restorative justice process includes crimes where there are no distinct victims.  Drug possession is one example that you used.  Many crimes do not have a distinct victim.  How are they using restorative justice with no victim?  In the VORP and CCP programs is participation by the victim and criminal mandated by a judge?  What if either the victim or criminal do not want to participate in a restorative justice process?  If these same room meetings with the victim and criminal are voluntary it would seem that you would have greatly inconsistent results depending on the decisions made by these individuals.  What if the victim in one case wants a prosecution that results in a conviction and jail time and a victim in another case, all other things being equal, agrees to participate in a restorative justice meeting.  Is that fair?  I think there is something in the constitution about equal protection.  How does a restorative justice program avoid a violation of equal protection unless a judge is ordering both sides to participate?  How is this done in neighborhood court?  I can imagine that many victims are not interested in participating in restorative justice or going to Woodland to testify in court.  It might be interesting if one of the proponents of restorative justice were to write a guest piece that addresses these questions.  Is there some DA in California that is using restorative justice better or more effectively?  Is there somewhere between Davis and Milwaukee with a more effective program?  Are there any statistics that using restorative justice reduces recidivism?  Is there a comparison between like cases with contrasting outcomes and recidivism rates?  The VORP program appears to only include juvenile criminals.  Sounds like the CCP involves adults.  Are our current criminal systems for juveniles and adults different?  It appears that the neighborhood court program has critics that it is soft on crime and others who would say it does not go far enough.

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