Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 11

Restorative Justice: The Experiences of Victims and Survivors

By Jane Evans, Susan McDonald and Richard Gill

“I started to feel fear in my everyday life that [the offender] might see me in the community and hurt me… I was happy to have a conversation with [the offender] to understand their perspective of what happened… telling [the offender] the effects that the crime had on me and hearing [the offender] take responsibility for their actions allowed me to start to move on.”

– Victim participant in an Indigenous Justice Program

The above statement from a victim who participated in a healing circle in their Indigenous community, speaks about the impacts of both the crime and of participating in a restorative justice process. This article describes the preliminary findings of a study documenting research on the experiences of victims and survivors,Footnote 20 along with the impacts of their participation in restorative justice processes in five Indigenous communities across the country. This study helps to fill a gap in this type of research as it is one of the first studies to explore this in Canada in recent years.

The Restorative Justice Approach

Restorative Justice (RJ) is an approach that focuses on repairing relationships and the harm caused by crime while holding offenders accountable. It provides an opportunity for the parties directly affected by crime – victims and survivors, offenders and their communities – to identify and address their needs in the aftermath of a crime, and seek a resolution that fosters healing, reparation and reintegration, and prevents future harm (Zehr 2002).

RJ attempts to address the needs of all participants using a flexible, inclusive and humanistic approach. RJ respects and values the dignity and security of all parties. Although penalties can be part of RJ processes, punishment is not a primary goal. RJ processes are considered successful when they promote the dignity and well-being of all parties involved, help to repair relationships, where possible, and restore peace, and advance community safety and security. In Indigenous communities, RJ processes are often grounded in Indigenous legal traditions and are designed to reflect the culture and values of the communities in which they are situated.

Existing Research on the Impact of Restorative Justice for Victims and Survivors

International research and evaluations of programsFootnote 21 in Canada have shown that RJ can improve victim satisfaction and generate positive mental health impacts for all participants, among other benefits.

Improve victim satisfaction, positive mental health impacts – A meta-analysis by Strang et al. (2013, 12) showed that victims and survivors who go through a RJ process are more satisfied about the handling of their case than those who do not go through an RJ process. The study also found that victims and survivors who go through a RJ process are more likely to receive an apology from the offender and to feel safer (Ibid.). Many victims and survivors have reported that the opportunity to participate in RJ and express themselves reduces their desire for revenge, and they would recommend the process to others (Umbreit et al. 2002; Wemmers and Canuto 2002; Ministry of Justice 2011; 2016). Victims and survivors have also reported that after participating in RJ processes, they experienced psychological benefits such as decreased fear and anxiety about a new victimization, decreased anger, increased sympathy towards the offender (Strang et al. 2006), and in some cases, even a decrease in post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) (Angel et al. 2014; Angel 2005). Some participants also reported experiencing positive changes in their physical health, in addition to positive psychological changes (Rugge and Scott 2009).

Research has shown that overall, participants were highly satisfied with the RJ approach and felt empowered by the process, compared to the approach of the mainstream criminal justice system to cases of serious crimes (Rugge, Bonta and Wallace-Capretta 2005; Clairmont and Waters 2015; Ministry of Justice 2016; 2011).Footnote 22

Existing research also shows that while satisfaction rates are generally fairly high, victims have also expressed concerns about RJ. Victims have felt that their offender was not genuinely remorseful for what they had done or fully engaged with the process (Ministry of Justice 2011; Wemmers and Canuto 2002). This finding confirms the importance of offender’s acceptance of responsibility before a RJ process is arranged. Victims have also expressed negative reactions when they have felt unprepared for the RJ process or felt that they received unclear information about what to expect (Wemmer and Canuto 2002). Some victims have expressed fear about saying what they really felt at the RJ process (Ministry of Justice, 2011). Other areas of concern have focused on victims’ dissatisfaction when offenders do not follow through on what they agreed to do to make amends and victims are not contacted following the RJ process and provided with updates on what the offender has done (Ministry of Justice 2011).

Sherman and Strang (2007, 8-9) also found that RJ generally reduced crime more effectively with more serious (e.g. violent) rather than less serious (e.g. property) crimes, and RJ produced better results with adults than youth, and for crimes where victims are identifiable. Examples of these crimes would be personal injury or violent crimes such as assault, rather than property crimes such as shoplifting or vandalism.

Despite the international research and the evaluations of Canadian programs noted herein, empirical research on the impacts of RJ programs, especially for victims and survivors in Canada, remains limited overall.

A Study of RJ Processes in Select Canadian Indigenous Communities

To help address this research gap, the Department of Justice CanadaFootnote 23 (the Department) undertook a study in 2017 to examine the experiences and perceptions of victims and survivors who have participated in RJ processes through community-based justice programs supported by the Indigenous Justice Program (IJP), formerly known as the Aboriginal Justice Strategy.Footnote 24

For more than 25 years, through the IJP, the Department has supported Indigenous community-based justice programs that use RJ processes and offer culturally relevant alternatives to mainstream justice processes in appropriate circumstances for non-violent, low risk offences. Operating since 1991, the IJP partners in a cost-shared relationship with all thirteen provinces and territories and is delivered by community justice workers across Canada. The supported programs incorporate the principles and processes of RJ alongside Indigenous legal traditions. The overarching goals are to decrease the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the mainstream justice system (i.e. reduce the rates of crime, victimization and incarceration), and to enhance overall safety and well-being in participating communities. Given that the restorative justice practices and models are deeply rooted in Indigenous cultures and traditions, the programs reflect the individual needs of the communities (Department of Justice Canada 2016).

Past evaluations of the IJP have primarily focused on measuring the impact of their community-based justice programs on offenders and the community.Footnote 25 Although victims and survivors may have been included in some case studies conducted during these evaluations, this is the first study by the Department dedicated to examining the experiences of victim and survivor participants in IJP-supported RJ processes. The goal of the study is to gain a better understanding of the impacts of these programs on victims and survivors.

The study examined: various RJ processes (e.g. victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, peacemaking circles, healing circles, and sentencing circles) along the justice continuum; the needs of victims and survivors; impacts of the programs on victims and survivors; and lessons learned and promising practices.


This study followed an exploratory case study approach. The Department contracted Alderson-Gill and Associates to undertake data collection and reporting, and to work closely with the Evaluation Division. To guide this core research team, the Department established an advisory committee comprised of representatives from the Policy Centre for Victim Issues, IJP, Research and Statistics Division, provincial and territorial partners, and from the communities involved in the study.

Research Questions

Four interview guides were developed for the case studies (victims and survivors; program managers and staff; community members and; friends and families of victims and survivors) to address the following research questions:

  1. What are the different RJ processes used in the case study programs? Who was involved and how were the processes delivered?
  2. What are the experiences of victims and survivors who participated in an IJP RJ process?
  3. What impact has participation in the selected IJP RJ process had on victims and survivors of crime?
  4. What were the needs of victims and survivors of crime in the selected RJ process?
  5. What are the lessons learned and best practices regarding victim participation in the selected IJP RJ processes?

Case Study Communities and Key Informants

IJP-supported programs that have RJ processes involving victims and survivors in a total of five communities in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut were included in this study. The research team and advisory committee worked with the participating community-based justice program managers to develop ethics and consent forms, along with tailored interview guides and a strategy to recruit participants for the interviews. The research team then travelled to each community for two to five days to conduct in-person interviews. Between June and October 2017, the team interviewed:

Key Findings

The following is a summary of preliminary findings from this study.

Nature of the RJ process

Although different RJ processes were included in the study, they all made efforts to include the victim. Other commonalities included: the participation of the community through local justice committees; Elders had a key role in the process; a recognition that personal and social factors may have contributed to the offender’s behaviour and are important to include in the discussion.

Nature of victim and survivor participation

As with the nature of the RJ process, the involvement of victims and survivors can differ depending on the community-based justice program. The following is a description of the nature of participation that was similar between the five programs involved in the study. Referrals to a community-based justice program can come from the police, courts or a community member. In criminal cases, once a referral is made, a community justice worker contacts the victim or survivor to invite them to participate. Should they choose to participate, the community justice worker prepares them for the process during an in-person or telephone conversation. The community justice worker describes the RJ process in detail, listens to the victims or survivors’ story, asks them about the impacts of the crime and their experience with the justice system, as well as what they hope to achieve from the RJ process. The community justice worker then organizes a circle and encourages victims/survivors to actively participate by describing what they experienced and what impacts they feel the crime had on them, their families and their communities. They are also invited to respond to comments from other participants and to discuss outcomes of the RJ process. In some cases, victims and survivors receive information about what has transpired since the circle.

Decision about whether to participate

Victims and survivors interviewed for the study indicated that they experienced a range of impacts as a result of the criminal event. These included: emotional trauma and fear; difficulties relating to friends and family; work tension and disruption; financial loss; and inconvenience. Although the impacts differed by individual, there was almost always a sense of lost trust and/or feeling of uncertainty. A lack of information from the criminal justice system compounded these feelings.

Community member participants interviewed also felt that their sense of security and well-being had diminished. In addition, many felt that the offenders’ behaviour reinforced negative stereotypes held by Canadians about Indigenous people.

The victims and survivors identified a number of reasons why they participated in the RJ process. The most common factors identified were: their knowledge of the program; the level of fear involved in the case or that they felt towards the offender (i.e. victims and survivors who were very afraid of the offender were less willing to attend mediation or sentencing circles); level of seriousness of the crime (i.e. victims and survivors often chose not to participate when their case involved a minor crime); and an inclination to help the offender. The goals of participation often shifted as the victim became more involved during the process. There was often a mix of personal interest in achieving a result and a broader interest in realizing longer-term benefits for the offender and the community.

RJ preparation

Preparation for RJ processes differed by program. However, all of the staff interviewed indicated that the proper preparation of the offender and victim or survivor was key to success. The majority of victims and survivors interviewed indicated that they were satisfied with the quality of the preparation that they had received. However, three of the victims and survivors interviewed indicated they felt that a lack of preparation led to the failure of the RJ process.

Victims’ and survivors’ experiences of the RJ process

Victims and survivors considered processes successful when they felt that their views had been heard and had influenced the outcome (i.e. the plan that was developed). The participation of Elders was also often seen as key to success, as was the ability of all parties to speak and listen in a safe, structured environment. In a few cases, the victim or survivor felt that the offender was not truly engaged, highlighting the importance of proper preparation for each of the participants in the RJ process.

Victim and survivor satisfaction

Overall, the victims and survivors interviewed for this study indicated a high level of satisfaction with the RJ process. Those who felt that their process was not successful still indicated that RJ is beneficial, but may not have been the best approach for their particular cases. Satisfaction seemed to depend on an existing positive attitude toward RJ, as well as the quality of RJ preparation. Almost all victims and survivors recommended the use of RJ processes for others.

In addition, a few victims and survivors indicated that they would have liked to learn about the outcome of the plan developed during the process and whether the offender completed the plan. Two victims and survivors indicated that they would have liked it if the Crown had informed them when their cases had been referred back to the courts after the failure of the RJ processes.

RJ impacts

Most of the cases that used a RJ process resulted in victims and survivors feeling heard and respected. In some cases, victims and survivors reported feeling relief from fear and anxiety, while in more serious cases victims and survivors felt that they could at least start to address these feelings. In addition, most victims and survivors felt considerable satisfaction with the plans developed through the RJ process. Even in the small number of cases where the circle ended prematurely without any resolution, all but one victim or survivor said they still had faith in the RJ process even though, the offender failed to fully commit to the process in their case. In these cases, victims and survivors as well as the community justice workers agreed that preparation had been insufficient to ensure that these conditions existed before the process began. In cases involving more serious crimes, preparation and support for victims is especially important because of the greater emotional impacts of the crimes and the heightened risk of re-victimization.

Victims and survivors also believed that the follow-up after the RJ process was completed and the plan was put in place could be improved. Community-based justice program staff who were interviewed agreed and identified a number of challenges they face in providing more comprehensive follow-up, including the occasional difficulties in locating victims and survivors to provide follow-up. Some community-based justice program staff also indicated that they lack the resources needed to follow-up given the high volume of cases. In addition, when cases are referred back to court, the community-based justice program staff are no longer able to access information about offenders. This is an area where more research may be required to understand what limitations could restrict the level of follow-up possible.


It is important to remember that the findings from these case studies in the five Indigenous communities reflect the specific context of the community, the RJ processes and the facts of each case. Notwithstanding these limitations, this research provides valuable insights into the impacts of RJ processes on victims and survivors of crime in Indigenous communities. These insights align with the results of other research on the impacts of RJ processes on victims and survivors.

This exploratory study, as well as previous RJ research, illustrates the importance of adequately resourcing programs to ensure sufficient preparation for, and follow-up to, RJ processes. Strong preparation is essential for all parties involved – victims and survivors, offenders and communities. Best practices and lessons learned suggest that all parties need information to inform their expectations of the process, to understand how it operates and how a resolution can be reached. This type of preparation and follow-up takes time, resources and training for program staff.

The study found that community-based justice program staff consider follow-up to be very important, but challenging for a number of reasons. Certainly a key finding of this research is the importance of creating a structured environment where all participants feel safe to speak and feel they are heard.

The study provides valuable insights into the experiences of victims and survivors in RJ processes in IJP-supported communities. The research can help inform future work on RJ, IJP-supported programs and with victims and survivors of crime.


Jane Evans is a Senior Researcher with the Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada. She has 15 years of experience working in evaluation on issues related to Indigenous peoples and the criminal justice system, victims of crime as well as access to justice.

Susan McDonald, LLB, PhD, is Principal Researcher with the Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada. She is responsible for victims of crime research in the Department and has extensive research experience on a range of victim issues.

Richard Gill is a research consultant with Alderson-Gill & Associates and a former Justice Canada evaluator who has been working in Indigenous communities since the 1980s.