Within modern legal discourse, a crime is defined as a wrong against the state. Accordingly, a representative of the state prosecutes an individual accused of having committed a crime. The critical point of contention is the failure of this definition to recognise the victim. It is the victim that experiences the actual harm caused by a crime. Restorative justice advances a more victim-centred definition of criminal behaviour wherein the harm or wrong is against the individual rather than the state.
Once the problem is redefined, current solutions become inadequate. The victim, who has a critical stake in the process, requires input and meaningful participation as well as reparation.
Restorative justice models are based upon several overarching principles. First, crime is primarily a conflict between individuals, resulting in harm to victims and communities and to offenders.
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It is only secondarily a transgression against the state. This simple notion has profound consequences as demonstrated by the previous discussion on defining crime. Second, the central goal of the criminal justice system should be to reconcile victims, offenders and their communities while repairing the harm caused by the criminal behaviour.
That is not to say that public safety is not paramount. Rather, it is the method of achieving public safety that is under debate. Third, the criminal justice process should facilitate active participation by victims, offenders and their communities. This results in a diminished role for the state. In theory, there maybe several benefits to restorative justice practices. For victims, restorative justice offers individuals a meaningful voice in the process, and serves several crucial human needs, including the need to be consulted and the need to be understood.
In some cases, the victim may also experience satisfaction from playing a part in preventing future criminal behaviour and from receiving reparation. For offenders, the process can be therapeutic as they take responsibility for their actions and take steps to repair the harm. For community members, the process serves to humanise the criminal justice system and reduce fear of crime by providing more accurate information about offenders and crime in general.
Restorative justice also provides community members with a voice in the criminal justice process. Restorative justice has been described as an empowering experience for all participants in the triad. The resulting practice models based upon these principles can be grouped into three categories—circles, conferences and victim-offender mediations.
These categories, while usually presented as distinct, are somewhat artificial in that the structure and practices often overlap or are quite similar. In general, restorative justice programs bring together the victim, the offender and community representation to collectively attempt to devise a solution that repairs the harm of crime. In victim-offender mediation, the community has a less significant role, as the mediator is typically the only community member present.
Participants meet and discuss the crime, its effects on their lives and possible steps towards restoration. The community is provided with an enhanced role in conferencing, which is essentially an extension of mediation to include a wider range of participants. Circles, which are similar in size to conferences, are rooted in traditional Aboriginal culture as a method for solving disputes and often include community elders.
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Civic implications of restorative justice theory: Citizen participation and criminal justice policy
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