The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice: An Evidence-Based Review

Restorative justice (RJ) is an approach to criminal justice focused on repairing harm rather than solely punishing offenders. This knowledge-base article summarizes evidence on RJ effectiveness from a comprehensive review by criminologists Lawrence Sherman and Heather Strang (Sherman & Strang, 2007).

What is Restorative Justice?

RJ brings together offenders, victims, and others involved in or affected by a crime to discuss its impact and agree on how to repair the harm caused (Marshall, 1999). The central premise is that crime hurts people and relationships in a community, not just violates law. RJ provides an opportunity for voluntary dialogue and collective resolution between victims, offenders, families, and community members.

RJ can be used at any stage of the criminal justice process as an alternative or addition to conventional prosecution and sentences. Specific practices include victim-offender mediation, family/community group conferences, sentencing circles, and community restitution. A core principle across models is enabling victims to express harm, offenders to take responsibility, and all participants to discuss how to make amends in their own words (Van Ness & Strong, 1997).

Evidence on Benefits for Victims

Multiple studies across the U.S., UK, Australia and other countries show RJ commonly delivers benefits to victims that the conventional justice process does not. Ten evaluations using interviews, surveys and/or psychological assessments found that victims reported higher satisfaction with RJ compared to normal prosecution. Victims valued the chance to ask questions and explain impact directly to their offenders (Angel, 2005; McCold & Wachtel, 1998; McGarrell et al., 2000; Strang, 2002).

Common benefits expressed by RJ participants include reduced fear and anger toward their offender, perceived protection from revictimization, and ability to move on from the crime. Notably, two RCTs in London found RJ significantly lowered post-traumatic stress symptoms among robbery and burglary victims compared to controls receiving conventional justice (Angel, 2005). This highlights potential for RJ to improve victims’ mental health and reduce costs of services needed to address trauma.

Effects on Repeat Offending

A consistent concern about RJ has been whether it might allow offenders to avoid appropriate punishment and increase crime. While earlier research was limited, recent rigorous randomized controlled trials find RJ reduces recidivism for certain offenses and offenders compared to controls.

Six experiments found less repeat offending after participation in RJ for violent crimes, with reductions of up to 84 fewer arrests per 100 offenders compared to controls in one study (McCold & Wachtel, 1998; Pennell & Burford, 2000; Sherman et al., 2006). Three RCTs report recidivism reductions after property crime as well, though evidence is somewhat mixed (Bonta et al., 1998; McGarrell et al., 2000; Sherman et al., 2006). However, three other evaluations show no difference in repeat offending for some RJ samples including certain property crimes (Luke & Lind, 2002; Sherman et al., 2000; Triggs, 2005).

Importantly, one RCT found RJ increased repeat offending among a small sample of 23 young Aboriginal property crime offenders versus controls in Canberra (Sherman et al., 2006). This highlights the critical need to carefully evaluate RJ with minority populations. Overall, however, empirical evidence to date indicates RJ does not increase crime across most rigorous studies if implemented properly.

Increasing Offenses Brought to Justice

A major barrier to justice is that most crimes lack enough evidence for conviction, or involve complex trials that can end in dismissal. Five randomized trials found offering RJ as diversion from court prosecution brought 2 to 4 times more offenses to justice compared to traditional proceedings (Davis et al., 1981; Strang et al., 1999). Completion rates were higher and defendants more willing to take responsibility when given the RJ option. This addresses a key aim of resolving more crimes and harm.


Though evidence is still limited, several studies indicate RJ can reduce criminal justice costs if used as an alternative to prison that does not increase reoffending. A study in Winnipeg found adult property/violence offenders who completed RJ had an 11% reconviction rate over 2 years versus 37% for a matched sample imprisoned for over 6 months (Bonta et al., 1998). An RCT in Idaho also found RJ equivalent to a short jail stay of 8 days among juveniles (Schneider, 1986). This suggests RJ may safely substitute for costly incarceration in some cases. RJ’s ability to reduce victims’ post-traumatic stress may also lead to lower health expenditures and lost productivity (Angel, 2005).

Recommendations for Implementation

Experts recommend careful targeting of RJ to offenses and offenders for which current empirical research indicates it has greatest benefit. Police, courts and corrections need training in RJ principles and institutional support to deliver programs effectively (Sherman & Strang, 2007). Statutory and policy changes should facilitate greater usage of RJ at different stages when both victims and offenders voluntarily consent. An independent oversight body like a Restorative Justice Board could set standards, promote quality practice, and monitor programs and research if RJ implementation expands. More community-level randomized trials are needed to understand the impact of making RJ the default first response to crime incidents in a local area, and how communities transition to widespread use.


In summary, rigorous empirical evidence indicates restorative justice can deliver significant benefits over conventional criminal justice responses for many victims and offenders. However, programs must be carefully designed, targeted, and evaluated to maximize positive impact on participant experiences, recidivism, and community well-being. If implemented responsibly on a wider scale, RJ has considerable potential to simultaneously reduce harm from crime and costs of the justice system. Further research is essential to develop truly evidence-based best practices. RJ provides a promising path to a justice system focused on accountability, healing, and prevention.


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Sherman, L. W., Strang, H., Barnes, G., & Woods, D. (2006). Preliminary analysis of race, recidivism and restorative justice for violent crimes in Canberra. Unpublished manuscript.

Strang, H. (2002). Repair or revenge: Victims and restorative justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Strang, H., Barnes, G.C., Braithwaite, J., & Sherman, L. (1999). Experiments in restorative policing: A progress report on the Canberra reintegrative shaming experiments (RISE). Canberra: Australian National University, Research School of Social Sciences.

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Van Ness, D. W., & Strong, K. H. (1997). Restoring justice. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing.