Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior (Bazemore, 1998). Restorative justice programs for juveniles bring together those most affected by the criminal offense—the justice-involved youth, the victim, and community members—in a nonadversarial process to encourage accountability and to meet the needs of the victims and the community in repairing the damage that resulted from the crime (Bergseth and Bouffard, 2007; Bouffard, Cooper, and Bergseth, 2017). Important elements of restorative justice programs include 1) the justice-involved youth taking responsibility for his or her actions, 2) a dialogue between the justice-involved youth and the victim, and 3) the justice-involved youth performing an action to repair the harm caused by the offense, which may include writing a letter of apology, paying a fine, or participating in community service (Zehr, 2002).
With a more traditional justice system approach, professionals might ask such questions as: What laws have been broken? and What punishment does the person convicted deserve? Under the restorative justice model, questions are framed differently, such as: What is the nature of the harm resulting from the crime? and What must be done to repair the harm? (National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence, 2009). From a restorative justice perspective, rehabilitation cannot be achieved until the justice-involved youth acknowledges the harm he or she caused and makes amends (Bazemore and Umbreit, 1997). By bringing together victims, justice-involved youths, community members, and other key stakeholders in a variety of settings, restorative justice programs seek to help the youths understand the implications of their actions and provide an opportunity for them to reconnect to the community. Both of these goals, once attained, can decrease their likelihood of reoffending (Zehr, 2002; Braithwaite, 2002; Strang et al., 2013).
This literature review focuses on the use of restorative justice for juveniles, including the theoretical framework, target populations, the goals and various models of restorative justice programs, and the outcome evidence in regard to the effectiveness of juvenile restorative justice programs.
Restorative justice is based on theories of reintegrative shaming (Braithwaite, 1989) and procedural justice (Tyler, 1990). Reintegrative shaming theorizes that people are generally deterred from committing crimes because of two informal types of social control: 1) conscience and 2) fear of social disapproval (Braithwaite, 1989). In restorative justice programs, a justice-involved youth’s actions are “shamed” by the community before the individual is accepted back into the community. This process helps counter the stigmatization or labeling that people convicted of a crime often face when reentering society. Research suggests that people convicted of crimes who are welcomed back into the community are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors that as a result can decrease their likelihood of reoffending (Braithwaite, 1989; Liberman and Katz, 2020).
Procedural justice theory suggests that individuals will be more likely to obey the law if they perceive the criminal justice system to be a reasonable and legitimate institution (Tyler, 1994). This is based on the belief that an individual’s perception of fairness regarding their own personal outcomes in the justice system influence their view of law enforcement, their compliance with laws, and ultimately their decision to reoffend (Hipple, Gruenewald, and McGarrell, 2014). Research has found that restorative justice programs are perceived to be more legitimate, compared with traditional criminal justice processes (Hayes and Daly, 2003; Kuo, Longmire, and Cuvelier, 2010).
Thus, restorative justice combines reintegrative shaming and procedural justice by engaging the public in a transparent justice process designed to heal, or “restore,” the justice-involved youth, victim, and the community.
Restorative justice programs typically target youths who have committed minor or nonviolent offenses; however, some programs also accept youths who have committed violent crimes (Bradshaw, Roseborough, and Umbreit, 2006; Bouffard et al., 2017). Programs vary as to the ages of the youth accepted, but participants are typically between ages 11 and 17.
Some research suggests that people convicted of different types of offenses may be able to participate in varying restorative justice programs based on the level of risk they present to the community (Bergseth and Bouffard, 2012). For example, short-term, low-intensity programs (such as indirect mediation) may be used for nonviolent or younger justice-involved youths who do not have a history of crime. Conversely, high-intensity programs that emphasize direct dialogue between victims and justice-involved youth (such as victim impact panels or conferences) may be reserved for youths who have repeatedly committed crimes or who present an increased level of harm to the community (Bergseth and Bouffard, 2012; Bouffard et al., 2017).
In addition, restorative justice programming can serve justice-involved youth at different contact points in the juvenile justice system, including arrest, referral, intake, and post-adjudication. Some restorative justice programs are designed to serve as diversion options, to keep youth from formal processing in the justice system. Others are designed as disposition outcomes, in which youths are sentenced to participate (Wilson, Olaghere, and Kimbrell, 2017; Silva and Plassmeyer, 2021). Further, some restorative justice programs are voluntary in nature and require participants to admit responsibility for their offenses, whereas other programs are mandated by the courts as part of post-adjudicated disposition outcomes (Wong et al., 2016; Pavelka and Seymour, 2019).
Finally, school systems can implement restorative justice practices in place of disciplinary punishment of students, such as suspension or expulsion. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that, of the 50.9 million students enrolled in public schools during the 2017–18 school year, 2.5 million students received at least one out-of-school suspension and 101,600 students were expelled (Payne and Welch, 2018; U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2021). Restorative justice approaches can serve as an alternative to exclusionary discipline to keep students in school.
 For more information on diversion options, see the Model Programs Guide literature review on Diversion From Formal Juvenile Court Processing.
There are a variety of goals of restorative justice programs for juveniles, which are in part determined by the needs and resources of each jurisdiction. In general, goals may include but are not limited to 1) reducing recidivism of justice-involved youth, 2) holding juveniles accountable for their actions, 3) ensuring victim safety and satisfaction with the process, 4) ensuring that justice-involved youths and victims view the process as fair and just, 5) increasing the empathy of justice-involved youths who have caused harm, and 6) repairing the harm caused by the offense (Bergseth and Bouffard, 2012; Silva and Plassmeyer, 2021; Wilson et al., 2017; Wong et al., 2016).
There are several models of restorative justice programs, all of which share common features, including a nonadversarial and informal process, an emphasis on community-based sanctions, and decisionmaking by consensus (Bergseth and Bouffard, 2007; Wilson et al., 2017). The most common restorative justice programs include family group conferences, victim–offender mediation, victim impact panels or classes, community reparative boards, and circle sentencing. Occasionally, practices from different restorative justice models are combined to form a single, comprehensive program (for example, combining family group conferences with reparative boards).
Family Group Conferences
Family group conferences (FGCs) are facilitated discussions that allow those most affected by a crime (the victim, justice-involved youth, and friends and family on both sides) to discuss the impact of the crime and decide how the justice-involved youth should be held accountable (Umbreit, 2000; Silva, Porter–Merrill, and Lee, 2019). FGCs originated in New Zealand and incorporate indigenous Maori values that emphasize the roles of family and community in addressing wrongdoing (McGarrell, 2001; Todić et al., 2020).
A typical FGC brings together the victim, the justice-involved youth, and their supporters with a trained facilitator to discuss the incident and the harm it has caused. The justice-involved youth describes the incident, and each participant describes the impact of the incident on his or her life. The purpose is to have the justice-involved youth face the human impact of his or her crime (Umbreit, 2000). The victim then is presented with the opportunity to express feelings, ask questions about the offense, and identify desired outcomes from the conference. All participants may contribute to the process of determining how the justice-involved youth might best repair the harm. By the end of the conference, the participants must reach an agreement on how the youth can make amends to the victim and sign a reparation agreement. The agreement typically includes an apology and may also require that some type of restitution be made to the victim. Some agreements require the justice-involved youth to perform community service or other actions such as improving school attendance, completing homework, or performing chores at home or school (McGarrell and Hipple, 2007; Pavelka and Seymour, 2019; Reimer, 2020).
Victim–offender mediation allows victims to meet the youths who committed offenses against them in a safe and structured setting for dialogue, negotiation, and problem solving (Umbreit and Greenwood, 2000; Pavelka and Seymour, 2019). The goal is for justice-involved youths to be held directly accountable for their behavior, learn about the full impact of their actions, and develop plans for how they will make amends to their victims. Additionally, victim–offender mediation seeks to foster the victim’s sense of empowerment. Overall, this process is designed to develop empathy in the justice-involved youth (which can help prevent future criminal behavior), address the emotional needs of the victim, and answer any questions the victim may have about the case or the restorative justice process (Amstutz, 2009; Choi, Bazemore, and Gilbert, 2012).
The mediation session or sessions involve a dialogue between the victim and the justice-involved youth, facilitated by a professional mediator. The purpose of the dialogue is to actively involve the victim and the justice-involved youth in repairing (to the degree possible) the emotional and material harm caused by the crime. It also provides an opportunity for both victims and justice-involved youths to discuss offenses, express feelings, and ask questions. In addition, the dialogue presents an opportunity for victims and justice-involved youths to develop mutually acceptable restitution plans that address the harm caused by the crime (Zehr, 2005; Choi, Gilbert, and Green, 2013; Villanueva, Jara, and Garcia–Gomis, 2014; Liberman and Katz, 2020).
Victim–offender mediation may appear to be similar to family group conferencing; however, there are important differences between the two types of programs. For example, victim–offender mediation is a structured process that involves only the victim, the justice-involved youth, and the trained mediator, whereas family group conferencing is an unstructured process that involves the victim, the justice-involved youth, a facilitator, and others affected by the crime such as family members and friends (McCold, 2000).
Victim Impact Panels, Victim Awareness Classes, and Community Reparative Boards
Victim impact panels and victim awareness classes serve as forums where crime victims explain the real-world impact of crime to persons convicted of a crime. Unlike conferences or mediations, victim impact panels do not involve direct personal contact between the justice-involved youths and their victims. Instead, these panels and classes generally use surrogate victims or family and friends of victims who have had similar experiences. The purpose of the panel or class is to help justice-involved youths individualize and humanize the consequences of their crimes on victims and the community (Immarigeon, 1999; Carson, Chenault, and Matusiak, 2016).
Victim Impact Panels. These panels address various offenses such as property crimes, physical assault, and drunk driving. Panels have been used in prison and jail settings, treatment programs, defensive driving schools, and youth education programs (Pavelka and Seymour, 2019). Participation by justice-involved youth in these panels is generally court ordered. Panels involve three or four victim speakers, each of whom spends about 15 minutes communicating his or her story in a nonjudgmental manner.
Victim Awareness Classes. These classes are generally more interactive than panels, encouraging justice-involved youths to engage in a dialogue with their victims (Pavelka and Seymour, 2019). For example, a victim awareness class in Santa Clara County, CA, used four modules designed to increase competency skills for justice-involved youths while supporting victims of crime. The modules covered 1) accountability, 2) driving under the influence, 3) property crime, and 4) violent crime. The classes also included victim speakers, interactive exercises, and group discussion. The classes were available for youths who were on probation or who were detained in rehabilitation centers (Juvenile Probation Department, 2004).
Community Reparative Boards. Community reparative boards (also referred to as youth panels, reparative boards, or neighborhood accountability boards) are similar to victim awareness classes, except that victims rarely participate. Instead, the boards comprise four to six volunteers from the community who are trained to address juvenile cases. Reparative boards are generally used in response to nonviolent and minor offenses committed by justice-involved youths who have been court-ordered to participate (Schiff, Bazemore, and Brown, 2011; Pavelka and Seymour, 2019). Meetings are public so community members and victims who wish to participate can talk face to face with the justice-involved youths about their behavior. The members of the board develop a sanction agreement with justice-involved youths, monitor compliance, and submit compliance reports to the court (Bazemore and Umbreit, 2001; Pavelka and Seymour, 2019).
Circle sentencing, sometimes called peacemaking circles or talking circles, originated as traditional sanctioning and healing practices of American Indian and Alaska Natives in the United States and First Nations peoples in Canada (Boyes–Watson, 2005; Cunliffe and Cameron, 2007; Goldbach, 2015; Pavelka and Seymour, 2019). Circle sentencing is a holistic reintegrative approach designed to address the criminal and delinquent behaviors of justice-involved youths and the needs of victims, families, and communities (Bazemore and Umbreit, 2001; Atella et al., 2016). The “circle” often includes a trained facilitator, crime victims, justice-involved youths, family and friends of both, justice and social service personnel (including police officers, lawyers, and judges), and interested community residents.
Discussions in the circle usually involve the use of a “talking piece.” Only the person holding the talking piece can speak, while everyone else must be respectful as the speaker shares his or her experience of the incident (National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence, 2009; Pavelka and Seymour, 2019). The members of the circle take turns discussing the event, trying to search for an understanding of what happened. Together, circle members identify the steps needed to assist in the healing of all affected parties and prevent future crimes. All circle members participate in deliberations to arrive at a consensus for a sentencing plan that addresses the concerns of all interested parties (Bazemore and Umbreit, 2001; Boyes–Watson, 2005; Anyon et al., 2016).
It is important to understand that circle sentencing may not be an appropriate response to certain types of serious crime. For example, an ethnographic study of judicially convened sentencing circles (Cunliffe and Cameron, 2007) argued that circle sentencing may not adequately address cases of intimate partner violence among First Nations peoples in Canada.
School-Based Restorative Justice
In addition to its being used in the juvenile justice system, some schools have adopted a restorative justice approach in dealing with school-based juvenile problem behaviors, such as peer conflict, bullying, and possession of substances (Reimer, 2020). And in addition to the overall goals of the practice discussed above, the main goal of restorative justice in a school-based setting is to reduce student disengagement that is associated with exclusionary discipline such as suspension and expulsion. Through restorative justice approaches, the student is reintegrated into the school community instead of being isolated from it (González, 2012). Restorative justice programs in schools aim to encourage a change in students’ behavior by emphasizing a healthy school community that relies on relationships and a sense of belonging over a fear of punishment (Todić et al., 2020).
Conferences are one common approach used in schools that implement restorative justice practices and can be used to address a range of behaviors, such as truancy, chronic disruption, and misbehaviors (both with and without direct victims). Similar to family group conferences in the juvenile justice system, people most affected by the behavior—including the student, the student’s parents/guardians and teachers, school staff, and the victim (if applicable)—meet and discuss the action and how it affects others and the school climate as a whole (González, 2012; Liberman and Katz, 2020). This not only allows for students to understand the effect their actions had on others but also gives them an opportunity to take responsibility for them. Further, it gives them a sense of autonomy in their environment, for they have a chance to voice their opinion of proper punishment (Sumner, Silverman, and Frampton, 2010).
Circles are also commonly used, especially in larger classroom settings. Classroom circles, similar to circle sentencing, focus on the sense of community in the classroom as a whole, rather than on specific individuals (Anyon et al., 2016; Payne and Welch, 2018). Classroom circles are viewed as a space for open discussion and problem-solving. While most circles use teachers or other school staff as circle leaders, some schools provide opportunities for students to lead the discussion among their peers to encourage leadership and autonomy (Todić et al., 2020).
Another example of a juvenile justice program that includes elements of restorative justice is a teen/youth court. However, these programs are not discussed in this literature review. For more information, see the Model Programs Guide literature review on Teen/Youth Court.
A surrogate is someone who can stand in for the victim and illustrate the harm done to the victim, ask questions of the offender for the victim, and represent the victim’s interest when deciding how the offender will repair the harm (Bergseth and Bouffard, 2007).
Overall, findings regarding the effectiveness of restorative justice programs on various outcome measures are mixed. Two meta-analyses (Wong et al., 2016; Wilson et al., 2017) found a statistically significant decrease in delinquency for participants in Restorative Justice Programs for Juveniles, compared with youths who went through traditional justice system processing. However, another meta-analysis of four randomized controlled trials (Livingstone, Macdonald, and Carr, 2013) found no statistically significant differences in reoffending or satisfaction with the process for youth who participated in conferences, compared with youth who went through normal court proceedings. These examples highlight the disparate outcome evidence of restorative justice programs.
Another study (Bouffard et al., 2017) examined outcomes for different types of restorative justice programs of varying intensity (e.g., indirect mediation, community reparative board, direct mediation). The findings not only supported the effectiveness of restorative justice programs but also suggested that all types of restorative justice interventions—even those with minimal involvement (e.g., indirect mediation by the program facilitator)—reduced recidivism risk, compared with traditional juvenile court proceedings.
The sections below provide information about the effects of juvenile restorative justice programming on victim satisfaction and perceived fairness in general and on juvenile recidivism rates, by type of restorative justice program.
Effects of Juvenile Restorative Justice Programs
Victim Satisfaction. Research has found that restorative justice programs can produce greater victim satisfaction with case outcomes, compared with cases handled in the formal justice system (Umbreit, 1994a; Umbreit, 1994b; Leonard and Kenny, 2011; Riley and Hayes, 2017). Victims who meet their justice-involved youths may also be less fearful of being revictimized (Umbreit and Roberts, 1996; Umbreit and Coates, 1993; Umbreit, 1994a; Umbreit, 1994b).
For example, victim–offender mediation can have a positive effect on victim satisfaction with the juvenile justice system. In a study on the Minneapolis Center for Victim–Offender Mediation, 85 percent of victims in the mediation group expressed satisfaction with how their cases were handled, compared with 64 percent of victims in the referral/no-mediation comparison group and 61 percent in the nonreferred comparison group (Umbreit and Coates, 1992). The reason for this statistically significant effect may be that the justice-involved youths who met their victims through mediation were more likely to be held directly accountable for their behavior (Umbreit, 1994a; Umbreit, 1994b; Marshall and Merry, 1990) and successfully complete their restitution obligations (Umbreit and Coates, 1992). More than 95 percent of victim–offender mediation sessions in the study resulted in a signed restitution agreement (Umbreit and Greenwood, 2000).
However, research has consistently found that the restitution agreement is less important to crime victims than the opportunity to express their feelings about the offense directly to the justice-involved youths (Umbreit and Greenwood, 2000). Other findings suggest that the most successful sessions are those in which youths take responsibility for their actions and actively participate in the mediation process (Choi et al., 2013).
Perceived Fairness. Numerous studies have found that victims who participated in restorative justice programs had greater perceptions of fairness, compared with victims of youths who were processed by the traditional juvenile justice system (Latimer, Dowden, and Muise, 2005; Leonard and Kenny, 2011; Sherman et al., 2015; Wilson et al., 2017). This may be due to the perception that justice-involved youths in restorative justice programs are more likely to repair the harm they caused (for example, by writing an apology letter or apologizing to the victim directly and accepting culpability for their actions) and complete restitution, compared with justice-involved youths processed through the traditional justice system. Notably, however, the compliance with restitution measured completion of these activities for youth in the restorative justice programs, and the comparison groups did not have the same mechanisms in place to monitor completion (Wilson et al., 2017).
Despite these promising findings, some studies have found that victims are not always satisfied after participating in restorative justice programs, and some programs tend to emphasize the justice-involved youth’s needs more than the victim’s needs (Daly, 2002; Amstutz, 2009; Choi et al., 2012; Choi et al., 2013). For example, victims who participated in victim–offender mediation reported at times that they felt pressured to participate and to accept the justice-involved youth’s apology, and that they also experienced anxiety at the thought of facing the justice-involved youth (Daly, 2002; Riley and Hayes, 2017). Victims have also reported feelings of revictimization during the mediation process, characterized by fear for physical safety, depression, distress, and unresolved anger (Wemmer, 2002; Bazemore, Zaslaw, and Riester, 2009; Choi et al., 2013). Moreover, some victims reported that they did not receive sufficient information about the mediation process and did not understand the procedures or what was expected of them (Bazemore and Stinchcomb, 2004; Choi et al., 2013).
Effects by Program Type
Family Group Conferencing. Studies also have found a statistically significant reduction in rates of offending for youths who participate in family group conferences, compared with youths in other types of juvenile justice courts or diversion programs, and with youths who are processed in the juvenile justice system (McGarrell and Hipple, 2007; de Beus and Rodriguez, 2007; Latimer et al., 2005; Luke and Lind, 2002; Rodriguez, 2005; Rodriguez, 2007; Umbreit, Coates, and Vos, 2002). FGCs also have shown positive effects for youth who committed violent crimes. One meta-analysis (Sherman et al., 2015) of 12 randomized trials in Australia and the United Kingdom indicated a consistent reduction in recidivism in violent crimes for youths who participated in FGCs, compared with youths who were processed in the traditional juvenile justice system (although there was no statistically significant reduction in property crimes for youth participants).
Another study (McGarrell and Hipple, 2007) examined outcomes for the Indianapolis Family Group Conferencing Experiment, a restorative justice diversion program for young, first-time justice-involved youths. The conference generally included not only the justice-involved youth and victim but also a group of supporters, including parents/guardians, siblings, grandparents, other relatives, friends, neighbors, and sometimes teachers, athletic coaches, and other important figures in the youth’s life. Findings indicated justice-involved youths in the FGC treatment group who participated in the conferences had fewer rearrests at the 2-year follow-up, compared with justice-involved youths in the control group who did not participate, which was a statistically significant difference. However, there was no statistically significant difference between the groups in the time it took to recidivate. Additionally, FGC youths were more likely to complete the program, compared with control group youths. Overall, the researchers found that FGC participants were less likely to be rearrested if they were initially arrested by a municipal police officer rather than by a school officer, and if they completed their diversion program.
Several studies have examined outcomes from the Canberra Reintegrative Shaming Experiments (RISE) in Australia. The program, which uses a conference model, was designed to measure the impact of “restorative policing” on both victims’ and justice-involved youths’ perceptions of justice and overall satisfaction following the conference, and on justice-involved youths’ recidivism. One study (Sherman, Strang, and Woods, 2000) found that conferencing resulted in a statistically significant decrease (38 percent) in the reoffending rates of youth who committed violent crimes. However, there was a small but statistically significant increase in drinking and driving offenses for youths assigned to conferencing, compared with justice-involved youths who went through court processing as usual. Additionally, there were no statistically significant effects on juvenile property or shoplifting offenses. Another study of Canberra RISE (Tyler, 2006) found that conferencing did not make a statistically significant impact on recidivism, compared with traditional court processing, at the 2-year follow-up. There also were no statistically significant effects in self-reported frequency of drinking and driving; however, conferenced youths were more likely to report making an effort not to drink and drive, compared with the control group. In addition, youths assigned to diversionary conferencing indicated a greater belief in the legitimacy of the law and a greater understanding of the impact that breaking the law would have on their families, compared with justice-involved youths who went through court processing. Overall, the studies found that Canberra RISE appeared to make a statistically significant impact on violent crime offense rates and measures of legitimacy/understanding of the impact of breaking the law, but no significant effect on drinking and driving offenses or property offenses.
Victim–Offender Mediation. Research has demonstrated that the victim–offender mediation process reduces criminal behavior, compared with traditional criminal justice interventions (Latimer, Dowden, and Muise, 2005; de Beus and Rodriguez, 2007). However, not all studies have found that the mediation produces this result (Umbreit and Coates, 1992; Roy, 1993; Schwalbe et al., 2012; Villanueva, Jara, and García–Gomis, 2014). For example, an evaluation of the Minneapolis Center for Victim–Offender Mediation program (Umbreit and Coates, 1992) found that at the 1-year mark following completion of the mediation there were no statistically significant differences in recidivism. However, justice-involved youths in the mediation program were more likely to complete their restitution obligation than were control group justice-involved youths. Specifically, 77 percent of the mediation program group completed restitution agreements, compared with 55 percent of the nonreferred comparison group.
Victim Impact Panels/Victim Awareness Classes. Research on victim impact panels and victim awareness classes for juveniles is relatively limited. Specifically, there is a lack of research that examines the recidivism rates of youth who participate in panels or classes (Do, 2006; Wilson et al., 2017). Existing research tends to focus instead on justice-involved youths’ self-reported feelings of guilt for their actions or empathy for their victims following completion of their programs. Findings from these studies indicate that youths who participate in victim impact panels or victim awareness classes may be more likely to express remorse for their offenses and empathy for their victims (Do, 2006; Hass and Lucas, 2013).
Community Reparative Boards. No studies to date have evaluated the effectiveness of juvenile community reparative boards. Although Vermont implemented the use of reparative boards for adults convicted of a crime and began using them with justice-involved youths shortly thereafter, the state has not yet completed any published studies on their effectiveness with justice-involved youths (Schiff, Bazemore, and Brown, 2011).
Circle Sentencing. A few studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of circle sentencing. In Canada, one study found that recidivism was less likely among justice-involved youths who had participated in a circle, compared with justice-involved youths who were processed traditionally in the juvenile justice system (Stuart, 1996). However, a different study examining a restorative justice talking circle targeting justice-involved youth found no statistically significant difference between the treatment and control groups in recidivism 1 year after the program start (Atella et al., 2016). A qualitative study of peacemaking circles in Minnesota found that, despite initial discomforts, more than two thirds of circle participants reported feeling at ease speaking in the circle (Umbreit, 2002). Effective circles depended on the use of a talking piece, which guaranteed each participant uninterrupted speech, and on a skilled circle keeper who established and maintained ground rules. Most cases required several circle meetings and follow-up circles after the justice-involved youth made amends (Umbreit, 2002).
School-Based Restorative Justice. Existing research on school-based restorative justice practices has demonstrated a generally positive effect on student disciplinary actions and attitudes. One study of a middle school in California that implemented conferences showed an 87 percent decline in suspensions, and expulsions were reduced to zero. Qualitative data from that study found that 91 percent of students believed that the conferences helped their relationships with other students at the school (Sumner, Silverman, and Frampton, 2010). Additionally, a school district in Portland, OR, that implemented restorative conferences avoided 71 days of student suspension the second school year and 108 days of suspension the third school year. Overall, 75 percent of students involved expressed that they felt the harm done had been repaired (González, 2012). However, both studies were limited by a lack of comparison groups.
Hybrid Model. Another study (Bergseth and Bouffard, 2007) examined the Juvenile Restorative Justice Program (Midwest County), which is considered a “hybrid model” or “variety approach” (Bazemore and Umbreit, 2001). In this program, staffers attempt to match justice-involved youths with the most appropriate of several restorative interventions. Specifically, if the victim is willing to participate in a face-to-face dialogue, then the facilitator proceeds with preparing the juvenile who has offended for direct mediation with the victim. However, if the victim is unwilling to meet the justice-involved youth in a face-to-face setting, then the facilitator may conduct an indirect mediation, or have the youth participate in a victim impact panel or a community panel. The researchers found no statistically significant differences between the treatment and comparison groups in decreasing the likelihood of official contact with police during the 4-year follow-up period. However, the average number of days to rearrest was higher for the treatment group (441.7 days), compared with the comparison group (254.1 days), indicating that the program demonstrated a statistically significant increase in participants’ time to rearrest.
Outcomes by Subgroups
Restorative justice programs may be effective in meeting the needs of specific youth. Generally, among youths who participate in restorative justice programs, younger justice-involved youths are less likely to recidivate, compared with older participants (McGarrell and Hipple, 2007). There is also evidence that white youths and girls are more likely to complete programs and less likely to recidivate, compared with minority youths and boys (Rodriguez, 2007; de Beus and Rodriguez, 2007; Jeong, McGarrell, and Hipple, 2012). Compared with white youths, youths from racial and ethnic minority groups (although overrepresented in the youth justice system) are also less likely to be referred to restorative justice programs and more likely to be processed through traditional court (Phillippi, 2012; Puzzanchera and Hockenberry, 2013; Sickmund et al., 2013). Similarly, although boys represent a larger percentage of justice-involved youth, girls are more likely to be referred to restorative programs (Phillippi, 2012; Sickmund et al., 2013).
Restorative justice programs are typically used with justice-involved youths who have committed minor or nonviolent offenses; however, some programs accept youths who have committed serious or violent crimes. Results from studies that compared outcomes for violent justice-involved youths and nonviolent justice-involved youths in restorative justice programs have been mixed (Bergseth and Bouffard, 2012). A meta-analysis of 10 studies found that on average, conferences appeared to be more effective in reducing violent crimes, compared with all other types of crime, although the samples included both youths and adults convicted of a crime (Strang et al., 2013). However, there also is evidence that restorative justice programs are less effective for youth who committed violent crimes, compared with youth who committed nonviolent crimes (Morris and Maxwell, 1998; McGarrell, 2001). Additionally, one study (Hipple et al., 2014) used data from the Indianapolis, IN, study on family group conferences to identify the probability of recidivism at 6 months and 24 months based on different characteristics of the sample. Findings indicated that youths who were originally arrested for a violent offense were more likely to be rearrested at both 6 and 24 months, and youth who committed a nonviolent offense and attended a restorative conference were least likely to be rearrested at 6 months and 24 months.
Other research suggests that offending history predicts recidivism more than crime type. Youths who have more-extensive criminal histories reoffend faster than do youth who have less-extensive criminal histories (Hayes and Daly, 2003; Daly et al., 2013; Bouffard et al., 2017).
Restorative justice programs are designed to repair the harm caused to all individuals involved in a crime, and to the broader community, by encouraging open communication between justice-involved youths and victims and holding justice-involved youths accountable for their actions.
In general, restorative justice programs have shown promising outcomes for both justice-involved youths and victims of crime, although some effects remain mixed for both the justice-involved youths and the victims. For victims, participation in restorative programs has been shown to increase satisfaction with the system but can also lead to feelings of revictimization or pressure to accept an apology (Choi et al., 2013; Riley and Hayes, 2017). For justice-involved youths, outcomes vary based on race, gender, prior offending history, and type of offense committed. Overall, findings indicate that youths who participate in restorative justice programs are less likely to reoffend, compared with youths who are processed traditionally in the juvenile justice system (Stuart, 1996; Bouffard et al., 2017). In addition, youth who participate in restorative justice programs are more likely to express satisfaction with how their cases were handled, accept responsibility for their actions, and complete restitution agreements, compared with nonrestorative justice program participants (Umbreit and Coates, 1992; Umbreit, 1994a; Umbreit, 1994b).
Although research has been conducted on the evidence base of some restorative justice models, others have not been adequately studied and require additional evaluation (Wilson et al., 2017). Further, while a few studies have used randomization, most evaluation research to date has used quasi-experimental designs. Therefore, more rigorous research is needed to assess the effectiveness of different restorative justice models.
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Prepared by Development Services Group, Inc., under Contract Number: 47QRAA20D002V.
Last updated: August 2021