Transforming our broken criminal legal system with Restorative Justice

A new policy kit on how states can establish a statutory right to restorative justice processes — and promote the development, cultivation, and expansion of restorative justice programs

Transforming our broken criminal legal system with Restorative Justice

Today, the Democracy Policy Network released our Restorative Justice policy kit, an open resource for legislators, staffers, activists, researchers, and journalists to learn how states can transition from punitive criminal legal systems toward more community-centered, humane, and effective ways of addressing harm.

View DPN's Restorative Justice kit

The current legal system fails to address the needs of harmed parties, offending parties, and communities writ large. States spend nearly $60 billion each year maintaining their penal systems, and yet over 40% of arrested persons reoffend within three years. Formerly incarcerated persons and their family members suffer health issues and psychological distress. Nor do harmed parties benefit from the status quo; instead, they often report feelings of alienation as they lose control over their own stories. Consequently, 52% of violent victimizations from 2006-2010 went unreported, including 42% in which a weapon was involved. The evidence thus returns a damning verdict: The current criminal legal system is ill-equipped to address interpersonal — much less systemic — harms.

A greater integration of — and financial support for — restorative justice processes throughout the criminal legal system, however, has the potential for transformative change. Restorative justice refers to the reconceptualization of crime as harm between parties, instead of as an infraction against the state. Taking many forms, from victim-offender dialogues to community conferences, this approach to harm rejects retribution and instead acknowledges the diverse needs of harmed parties, offending parties, and their communities alike.

Restorative justice is not a new idea. Indigenous communities from North America to New Zealand have historically utilized restorative circle processes to resolve conflicts. In the United States, communities most neglected by the current system, such as Oakland, CA, are similarly fostering restorative norms within schools and rejecting punitive approaches. States like Colorado and Vermont have implemented statutory support for restorative justice interventions as an alternative to the traditional criminal legal system. Such policies range from increasing opportunities for restorative justice diversion pre-arraignment or pre-trial to funding existing community-based organizations currently engaged in this work. In each of these cases, locales have been empowered to put forward their own visions of what accountability, redress, and healing — in a word, justice — looks like.

The status quo is neither morally nor financially sustainable. Fortunately, an alternative option does exist. Community-based restorative justice interventions have proven their increased effectiveness in preventing harm and protecting communities. It is now up to states to support them in these efforts. In particular, states can:

  1. Establish a statutory right for harmed and offending parties to pursue restorative justice processes at any point during a criminal legal process
  2. Mandate that all parties in a criminal proceeding (harmed and alleged responsible party) be informed of restorative justice options
  3. Develop distinct restorative practices for crimes with inherent power imbalances, such as sexual or intimate partner violence
  4. Establish due process protections for responsible parties involved in a restorative justice program
  5. Eliminate fees for restorative justice participation
  6. Establish statewide restorative justice infrastructure to coordinate information, training resources, and funds to community-based organizations operating restorative justice programs
  7. Fund community-based public safety initiatives external to the criminal legal system

Learn more in our Restorative Justice policy kit.

If you are a legislator, activist, expert, or journalist looking to help promote restorative justice in your state, check out (and share) our kit — and please reach out!