The model long held by the U.S Judicial System for serving justice to offenders, while effective in terms of punishment, does not always produce the resolution that both victims and offenders deserve. Depending on the offense, victims often struggle with fear, anxiety, and social issues even after the court has sentenced the offender. Similarly, offenders who never get to know their victims are more likely to repeat the offense in the future. These trends are evident in non-criminal cases of personal wrongdoing as well. To address these issues, restorative justice offers an alternative: sincere, face-to-face conversation between victim and offender.

Proponents of restorative justice believe that, with an honest and sincere conversation between offender and victim, each party can benefit in a number of ways. Social workers can use this method to repair relationships between their clients and family members, friends, institutions and other members of the surrounding community. In order to use this tool effectively, social workers need to understand the motivation and the benefits behind it.

Key Principles and Benefits

When each party commits to the discussion, restorative justice methods offer a number of promising benefits.

Offenders are less likely to repeat their mistakes when they learn of the impact that their actions had on the victim. This effect is much more potent when the information comes from the victim themselves. Criminal psychologists will attest to the power of empathy in terms of recidivism rates, as will these objective findings.

The victim stands to benefit from restorative justice as well. By understanding the circumstances surrounding the offense, the motivating factors behind it, and how it has changed the offender’s perspective, the victim gains a sense of dignity and closure. In the same way that humanizing the victim helps to prevent future crimes, humanizing the offender helps to alleviate fear, anxiety and anger for the victim.

When an offender is separated from the victim and punished without a chance to express their remorse, their guilt and frustration will be further legitimized. This often leads to more harmful behaviors. If the offender is given a chance to make personal apologies and reparations to the offender, however, they will develop a more optimistic perception of their punishment and themselves.

It’s important to note at this junction that restorative justice does not emphasize punitive methods, meaning that offenders are to be treated with respect throughout the process. The conversation between victim and offender is about overcoming the wrongdoing in a productive manner. It should be the social worker’s mission to create a path to increased empathy and understanding that travels in both directions. Where exactly can social workers use restorative justice? In any case of wrongdoing between any two people.

Social Work Applications of Restorative Justice

The majority of social workers are tasked at one point or another with settling conflicts and/or improving relationship dynamics between their clients and surrounding members of the community. Especially in the absence of formal (legal) punishment, restorative justice is a highly valuable tool in the following scenarios:

Children and parents – Social workers are often subjected to the stigmatic belief that they only want to take children away from their parents. In reality, this is a last resort. Even in cases of neglect or abuse, where removing the child is completely warranted and approved by the court, restorative justice can still be used (if it is safe) to begin repairing the relationship between parent and child. In this case, having a mediator to gently direct the conversation is helpful.

Spousal conflict – Whether the problem is centered around general disagreements, abuse or neglect, or other wrongdoing, spouses often benefit from family therapy because of the use of restorative justice to encourage empathy and understanding. The social worker doing the counseling can also be highly beneficial as a mediator in this case, because they can offer an objective, third-person perspective on the issues presented.

Social Justice – Social workers play their part in social justice efforts as well, providing resources and advice to disenfranchised members of society. The aim of restorative justice in this case is to stop discrimination against a client by an institution with clear and open communication.

Schools – School settings are one of the most consistent in terms of environments where restorative justice is already in practice. When one student wrongs another, learning the impact of their actions in a calm, moderated discussion with the victim is crucial to developing responsibility.

These are just a few common examples in which a social worker may apply the restorative justice method. Note that, in cases where the offender is facing legal consequences, restorative justice can still be used to empower both victim and offender to move forward.

Steps for a Productive Meeting 

What does an effective meeting look like when using the restorative justice method? The circumstances surrounding the incident, as well as the people involved in it, may change the framework slightly. The overall concept, however, remains the same: encourage empathy, understanding, and reconciliation through open communication.

It can be tempting to “referee” the conversation, as a social worker who wants to help, but it’s vital to allow each party the chance to speak sincerely. Social workers in this instance are background moderators, not active participants. There are generally four points, however, that each meeting must address for the restorative justice model to be most effective. If the participants don’t arrive at them on their own, social workers can gently direct the conversation:

      • Explain the impact of the offender’s actions. Introduce the participants, thank them both for agreeing to the meeting, and remind each one to treat the other with respect. Ask the victim to explain to the offender how the incident affected them.
      • Open a productive dialogue between the offender and the victim. It can be uncomfortable for the offender at this stage, having just been reminded of their wrongdoing, so it’s important to move the conversation forward. Ask the offender if they could explain a little about how they felt at the time, and then let the conversation take its natural course from there.
      • Create an opportunity for personal reparation. It’s important not to force
        this step, because doing so will take away from the offender’s sincerity. Oftentimes, reparation will occur naturally, taking the form of a sincere apology, payment, or anything specific to the incident (offering to repair or replace vandalized property, for example). If the conversation strays, however, light prompting may be useful in creating this opportunity.
      • Conclude the discussion and, if applicable, proceed with punishment. As mentioned, restorative justice can be used with punishment-based models if appropriate. After the above steps have been accomplished, thank each participant and state the offender’s punishment. Doing so in front of both parties gives closure to the victim while justifying the punishment for the offender.

When properly applied, restorative justice brings a measure of closure and dignity to both parties involved that punitive measures can’t. As long as social workers remember to prioritize honesty, empathy and understanding when using this method, they will gain lifelong access to a powerful tool.

Tim Kalantjankos

BS Sociology| University of Nebraska at Omaha

AS Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

July 2019