A Restorative Justice Primer for Offenders



Restorative Justice 101 for Violent Offenders 

Victim Sensitive Offender Dialogue is a Restorative Justice process for victims and survivors of severe crime and for the offender who participated in the crime. For  offenders in crimes of severe violence, the process begins with offenders taking a  personal responsibility for what they have done. This means being willing to face and feel a personal sense of accountability for their actions and behaviors, and remorse for the effects of those actions upon the victims/survivors. It means having an understanding of the depth of the pain and grief and suffering they have caused.  For offenders it is not merely about apology, especially for what can never be restored or made whole again. And restorative justice is not about forgiveness – unless or until victims/survivors feel ready within themselves to freely offer that forgiveness.

While restorative justice is often thought of as providing offenders with a chance to apologize in person to their victims/survivors, there are many victims/survivors who do not want an apology—who do not want the offenders in their cases to be allowed what they feel is the “cheap grace” of apology. For it is only with a true understanding of how profoundly victims and their survivors have been wounded that offenders can begin to comprehend what apology can and cannot be. After all, it is impossible to “get over” the loss of a loved one to murder, or the loss of one’s innocence and sense of safety to sexual assault or violation. This is why restorative justice must be fundamentally victim-centered if it is to be truly effective.

For most victims/survivors this often means making the offender understand not only what s/he did to the victim(s), but the continuing and persistent after-effects of what s/he did. When a loved one has been murdered, or when one’s innocence has been shattered by sexual assault or other violation, nothing can be done to “pay back” the life, or the innocence lost, or the trauma and post-trauma endured. This is why restorative justice for offenders can never be merely a matter of summoning the courage – as hard as that may be – to express an apology to a victim/survivor, regardless of its sincerity. Because until the victim/survivor is certain that the offender comprehends thoroughly what s/he has actually done, it cannot have the necessary meaning. Some offenders can substantially infer this through in-prison victim impact panels; others only comprehend it by hearing from, or personally experiencing, a facilitated meeting or dialogue with the person(s) s/he victimized. Still others – a relative few – seem unable to comprehend it at all.

Finding ways of expressing personal accountability when not a single thing can be done to repay the loss may seem impossible. And many restorative justice theorists and practitioners would like to see restorative justice initiatives – writing apology letters, for example – originating from offenders. But this is not usually what victims/survivors want. While the remorse and the apology may be authentic and heartfelt, only victims themselves can tell offenders exactly how what happened has affected them, and they are the ones who need and deserve to be in control of when – and whether – to accept an apology.

Restorative justice is often seen as requiring a face-to-face meeting between the victim/survivor and the offender. But this is not always necessary – and it’s certainly not always wanted by the victim/survivor. This is why restorative justice for victims must be defined first by each victim’s needs – not the needs of the offender, or of society.

Many restorative justice practitioners believe that all victims should be able to meet with their offenders in a “mediation” or “reconciliation.” But these words themselves can be deeply wounding to victims, as they suggest that the issue is merely a dispute to be resolved or reconciled. Victimization, loss, violation, and trauma are far more complex, and victims deserve to know clearly that they were in no way responsible for what happened to them. The offenders were responsible, and the choices they made were theirs alone. When offenders become unambiguously clear about this, the process of restoring a sense of justice for victims/survivors may be able to begin again.

In crimes of severe violence, restorative justice practices have absolutely no direct effect or bearing upon an offender’s sentence, classification, or release date. Ironically, it is within the context of reaching a truly personal understanding of accountability that violent offenders actually begin to see that making meaning in the future from what happened in the past is well worth changing their attitudes, their behaviors, and their lives for – even while still incarcerated. This is how a self-actualized commitment to rehabilitation can be ignited within them, and this is the truly transformative power of restorative justice for offenders.

Adapted from the Just Alternatives website