Restorative Practices in Criminal Justice Systems

Restorative practices refer to alternative approaches used in criminal justice systems that center on repairing the harms of criminal behavior rather than solely punishing offenders. This article will explore the philosophy, history, programs, and debates around restorative justice.
The origins of restorative practices can be traced back to Indigenous traditions in many cultures that emphasized reintegrating wrongdoers and making amends to those affected. (Zehr, 1990) In the late 20th century, Mennonite and Quaker communities developed “peacemaking circles” as an alternative approach (Bazemore & Schiff, 2015). However, restorative justice gained broader attention starting in the 1990s as an alternative to mass incarceration (Crawford & Newburn, 2003).

Here are two case studies of Restorative Practices being applied in Criminal Justice Systems:

New Zealand Youth Case Study:

In 1998, a 16-year-old Māori youth stabbed and seriously injured another boy in South Auckland, New Zealand during a fight. Under New Zealand’s youth justice system, the case was handled through a family group conference, a form of restorative justice, rather than traditional prosecution. The conference included the offender and his family, the victim and their family, local iwi (tribal) leaders, and youth justice coordinators. Through a facilitated discussion, they developed a plan for the offender to make amends. This included a full apology, counseling, paying restitution, and participation in cultural/spiritual ceremonies with his iwi. Follow-ups found the youth successfully complied with the plan and did not reoffend. Both families also expressed satisfaction with the restorative outcome and sense of closure. Proponents cite this case as demonstrating how restorative conferencing can effectively address even serious youth offending while incorporating important Māori cultural concepts of community and forgiveness.

Australian Murder Case Study:
In 2006, a 17-year-old Aboriginal youth from Brisbane fatally stabbed another adolescent during a confrontation. Under Queensland law, this allowed the case to be addressed through a restorative justice process instead of prosecution, given the offender’s age. Months of careful planning involved extensive engagement between the offender, victim’s family and local Aboriginal elders, as well as legal representation and conference facilitators. At the family group conference, the youth provided a full confession and apology directly to the grieving family. Both parties asked questions to gain closure. Through collaborative discussion, an outcome plan was agreed upon. It required the offender to remain in his community under elder monitoring, attend counseling and education programs, and issue a public statement on nonviolence. Compliance was verified and families felt this approach enabled deeper healing compared to courts. This case demonstrates how even homicide can be responsibly managed through well-structured restorative avenues with community input and oversight.

Thought Leaders:

• Howard Zehr – Pioneered the modern restorative justice movement and framed crime as interpersonal harm rather than law-breaking. His books have been influential.
• John Braithwaite – Australian sociologist known for empirical studies supporting restorative conferencing. Braithwaite’s theory of reintegrative shaming has informed programs.
• Danielle Sered – American activist and founder of Common Justice, a model offering alternatives to incarceration through restorative conferencing for violent felonies.
• Kay Pranis – Consultant who has helped implement restorative processes worldwide. Known for practice-based guidance on circle processes and facilitation.

Contemporary Insights:

• There is debate around using restorative approaches for serious/violent crimes, though some programs have shown promise like Common Justice. Equity and power imbalances must be actively addressed.
• Covid-19 accelerated use of remote conferencing for efficiency, but virtual mediation poses unique challenges around comprehension and trust-building. Hybrid models may merge online and in-person.
• Governments are under increased pressure to curtail mass incarceration and explore community-based responses. Restorative justice offers a framework to involve directly impacted citizens in reforming criminal legal systems.
• Indigenous-led justice models employing traditional healing practices are gaining recognition for effectively meeting the needs of overrepresented groups within mainstream justice settings.
• Longitudinal data and cost-benefit analyses would strengthen understanding policy impacts, though collaborative processes pose challenges for traditional empirical study. Creative evaluation methods are emerging.


Overall, restorative practices offer a philosophy that moves beyond retribution to focus on restoring victims, relationships, and communities. When applied properly with well-trained facilitators and full stakeholder participation, it shows promise as an alternative for both low-level and even serious crimes. However, challenges integrating these principles within established punitive systems also remain. Ongoing research and reform efforts continue to explore how to reap restorative justice’s benefits while mitigating potential downsides.