The Effects of Restorative Justice Programming: A Review of the Empirical


There has been a clear increase in the number of restorative justice programs operating around the world over the last decade. A considerable number of research projects and evaluations are also on-going. At the present time, however, there are several clear gaps in the restorative justice research literature. There is also a lack of controlled studies and an absence of consistently used measures of effectiveness. This paucity of experimental research into ‘what works’ in the restorative justice field can partly be attributed to the relatively recent implementation and upcoming evaluation of many programs. It is also due, however, to a simple failure to review and evaluate programs. Moreover, effectiveness has not been standardised. In traditional criminal justice research, it is merely a matter of determining which interventions lower recidivism rates. In restorative justice research, there is a lack of sophistication about how to best evaluate programs.

4.1 Gaps in Knowledge at the Participant Level

4.1.1 Recidivism

It is not clear that restorative justice is more effective than the traditional criminal justice system at reducing recidivism. Preliminary results do show promise, however. Further research is nevertheless needed to gain a clearer sense of the effects of restorative justice on the future behaviour of offenders. While it is difficult to use random assignment to control and treatment groups, this provides the most rigorous method of determining effects on recidivism. If randomisation is not possible, matched samples, using such variables as age, gender, offence severity and criminal history, can be used retrospectively. Meta-analytic techniques are an additional, and arguably more definitive, method of understanding the effects of a program on recidivism. These techniques, however, are not possible with the current state of research. Several more years are required to develop an appropriate body of comparative research literature.

4.1.2 Community effects

There is a paucity of data on the effects of restorative justice programs on the community component of the triad. Several key questions remain unanswered. Does the development and ongoing operation of a restorative justice program affect the community in any substantive way? Although there will be debate in any effort to operationalise the concept of ‘community’, it is theless important for policy development to attempt to understand restorative justice through this lens. How does restorative justice programming affect levels of volunteerism and community development? Do restorative justice programs reduce fear of crime among community participants? Are there any effects on a community member’s perception of the criminal justice system?

4.1.3 Moderating variables

As discussed previously (see Table 3.2), there are a multitude of moderating variables that need to be further understood. How does the seriousness of the offence affect the process and outcome? Does a prior relationship between the victim and offender affect the outcome of restorative justice programs? Are young offenders more appropriate than adult offenders for restorative programs? Do trained mediators increase participant satisfaction and the likelihood of a fair restitution agreement? Does the entry point of the program affect levels of victim satisfaction? Are conferences with a broad range of community participants more likely to reduce recidivism than a mediation session with a single mediator? The preceding table is certainly not an exhaustive list of possible variables. There are countless moderating factors that may play a role in shaping the outcomes of restorative programming.

4.2 Gaps in Knowledge at the System Level

4.2.1 Cost-benefits

Community-based volunteer programs should be less expensive to run than the larger, traditional structures of the court and correctional system. Restorative justice programs are, however, often integrated into the system rather than used as an alternative. There are also issues of net-widening that can increase costs. On the other hand, it requires more than a simple financial analysis to fully appreciate the cost-benefits of restorative justice. It is difficult to place a price on the significant increases in victim satisfaction or the psychological healing that may occur as a result of mediation. While we may be able to demonstrate cost savings from reductions in incarceration and reduced probation caseloads, it will be difficult to measure the true costs and benefits of restorative justice. theless, it is important for researchers to grapple with this issue. Continued financial and political support for ‘alternative’ approaches such as restorative justice, if warranted, often require empirical and financial data.

4.2.2 Criminal justice system

There is a clear lack of knowledge concerning the effects of restorative justice practices on the Canadian criminal justice system along all four entry points. In general, we should attempt to understand the changing role of the police as the first line of contact considering the increasing number of pre-charge diversion programs. Do police have the necessary training to enable them to make the best choice for both the offender and the community? In fact, this question can be posed along all four entry points. Do Crown attorneys or judges know which offenders are best suited for restorative justice programming rather than probation or straight cautioning? Will legal aid costs decrease as more and more offenders do not require legal representation? Or inversely, will legal aid costs increase as duty counsel attend four hour restorative justice sessions rather than a five minute appearance before a judge?

4.2.3 Data collection

Is there a need to develop more sophisticated data collection methods considering the increasing number of community programs that are operating outside of the formal criminal justice system? A ‘community stream of justice’ does not typically have in place the standardised methods of capturing information. We will not be able to accurately collect crime statistics through traditional court- and police-based data. Further investigation is required to determine if it is necessary to expand our current data collection practices.