Crime Victims’ Experiences of Restorative Justice: A Listening Project



Restorative justice is gaining increased recognition as a promising approach to improving the Canadian criminal justice system. The concept of restorative justice is grounded in a commitment to attending to the needs and experiences of crime victims and survivors. Yet, as this report will explain in fuller detail, restorative justice practices have not always lived up to their promise for victims over the past four decades of expansion within the Canadian criminal justice system. Restorative justice practices have at times diverged from core principles, which has led some victims/survivors and their advocates to be uncertain or skeptical about the benefits of restorative justice programs and processes. The Listening Project is founded on a belief that a key step in the growth of restorative approaches is for systemic and community-based proponents of restorative justice to listen carefully to the voices and perspectives of victims/survivors and victim service providers, and to take these perspectives seriously in future policy and program design.

Report Structure

This report is organized to reflect the rich information gathered from the Listening Project on Crime Victims’ Experiences of Restorative Justice. The structure of this report is as follows:

  • background on restorative justice and its relationship with crime victims,
  • an overview of the Listening Project,
  • findings on the needs of victims of crime and how restorative justice did and did not meet those needs,
  • suggestions from Listening Project participants on how to enhance meaningful victim involvement, and;
  • feedback and conclusion.

What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice has emerged as a term used to describe an approach to justice with deep roots in many traditional Indigenous legal practices, faith communities and other cultural traditions. The hallmarks of this approach to justice include inviting the participation of people affected by harm and crime, addressing the harm with an eye toward recovery, healing or repair, seeking direct accountability from those who have caused harm, attending to the wider repair and growth that may be required within the community, and in so doing looking to prevent future harm from occurring.Footnote 1

The author Howard Zehr defines restorative justice as

an approach to achieving justice that involves, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offence or harm to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.Footnote 2

Restorative justice is often associated with processes of direct and/or indirect communication between the affected parties (such as Peacemaking Circles, Conferences and Victim Offender Dialogue). On the other hand, restorative justice is an “approach” to understanding and achieving justice that goes beyond a specific encounter or program.

Restorative Justice and Crime Victims

A restorative approach to justice begins by asking: who has been hurt, and what are their needs?Footnote 3 This implies an authentic inquiry into the needs of victims and survivors; not as an instrument for offender rehabilitation or treatment, but as individual needs that stand on their own merit. Mark Umbreit and Marilyn Peterson Armour further explain,

[c]ore to restorative justice principles is the understanding that it is a victim-centered process. This means that the harm done to the victim takes precedence and serves to organize the essence of the interaction between the key players.Footnote 4

International literature holds promising data for restorative justice and victims/survivors. Meta-studies indicate victims report satisfaction in 75% to 98% of cases involving conferencing and victim-offender mediation, which is much higher than victim satisfaction with court.Footnote 5 Restorative justice has also been shown to help victims recover from traumatic experiences, providing much needed opportunities for validation, connection, choices and enhanced feelings of safety.Footnote 6

Despite this and other promising data, the literature also reveals that restorative justice has been disappointing to some victims. In the late 1990s for example, a group of early leaders within the restorative justice and victim assistance movements in the United States undertook a collaborative Listening Project “specifically designed to confront the significant deficiencies of restorative justice practice pertaining to victim participation and impacts for victims, their advocates and victim services generally.”Footnote 7 As observed in the Project’s final report,

Very often, restorative justice not only reflects offender needs—making amends, and changing and rehabilitating offenders—but is driven by such needs. Restorative justice may be offender initiated, and may be oriented to an offender timeline. Such needs and practices may not be compatible with victim needs, however. Where offenders are provided with help to change their lives, but victims are not provided help to deal with their trauma, victims feel betrayed by the offender orientation of restorative justice.Footnote 8

More recently, a team of researchers summarized several studies detailing victims’ experiences of dissatisfaction with restorative justice in youth justice settings.Footnote 9 The authors found themes of victim “marginalization” in some restorative justice processes, including:

  • inadequate preparation of victims for the restorative justice process;
  • victims feeling used by the restorative justice program as instruments for offender rehabilitation;
  • victims feeling pressure – to participate, to forgive the offender, to under-represent the intensity of their emotions, to move quickly through the restorative justice process;
  • re-victimization in the restorative justice process; and,
  • concerns about practitioner competency.

The authors warn that “…restorative justice processes can produce adverse outcomes for some victims when they become offender focused or insensitive to the needs and concerns of victims.”Footnote 10

Observations such as these indicate that along with the strengths of current restorative justice practices, there exists much room for growth and improvement. The aim of this Listening Project is to provide a resource that can help to increase the understanding of both governmental and non-governmental decision-makers in Canada, and therefore to enhance the evolving field of restorative justice as a service to crime victims and survivors.

Listening Project Overview and Methodology

To achieve the goals of the Listening Project, Justice Canada (Policy Centre for Victim Issues and the Research and Statistics Division) contracted Just Outcomes Canada to convene a series of listening sessions in various regions across the country. After months of preparation with local sites, the sessions were held from February to April of 2019 in the following regions (to optimize anonymity, specific cities/towns have intentionally been left out):

  • Ontario
  • Nova Scotia
  • Saskatchewan
  • British Columbia
  • Yukon

Site selection was based on two major criteria. First, geographic diversity was prioritized to include rural, urban, Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western parts of Canada. Secondly, sites were chosen based on the existence of robust restorative justice programs with a significant number of victim participants.

In each site, a program professional from an organization providing restorative justice services was identified to conduct outreach to crime victims who had been former program participants and invite them to participate in the Listening Project. Victim support persons, victim advocates, and other community members who had provided “surrogate” victim perspectives in restorative justice processes were also recruited. All participants were offered a $100 stipend for expenses related to their time and participation, and all had access to a brief research paper on the background of restorative justice including its relationship to serving victims. A professional within victim services was invited in each location to contribute to the dialogue and provide immediate support to participants as needed. All sessions occurred on a Saturday to maximize convenience for (most) participants. A Justice Canada representative was also present at each site, except in Saskatchewan because of unforeseen circumstances. Attendance at the Listening Project sessions was voluntary for all.

Participants, Crime Types, Approach

There were 36 participants (restorative justice program staff and Justice Canada staff not included). Some participants had more than one of the following identities:

Direct Victims: 26
Victim Surrogates: 5
Victim Service Workers/Advocates: 6
Corporate Representatives: 2

Participants had experienced the following crimes: property/vehicle crimes (4), fraud (1), theft (3), assault (10), hate-motivated vandalism (2), impaired driving causing death of a loved one (3), and murder of a loved one (3). As the content of this report will demonstrate, the severity of the crime may not have been proportional to the impact of trauma experienced by participants. That is, participants who experienced crimes typically categorized as “minor” may still have experienced a great deal of suffering and trauma. While the original methodology called for a diversity of cases, recruitment involving domestic violence or sexual assault cases proved unattainable. Most programs either had never dealt with such cases or no longer had any contact with victims in those cases. Youth were present or represented by a parent in three out of five of the Listening Sessions (total of 3 youth). Participants identifying as Indigenous were present in three out of five of the Listening Sessions (total of 5 participants identifying as Indigenous).

The researchers recognize that the relationship-based approach of the recruitment process may influence the data in this report towards participants who had primarily positive experiences with the restorative justice program and facilitators. We also acknowledge that for this Listening Project a limited scope of restorative justice was targeted. That is, while restorative justice’s application can be vast and contribute to addressing harm in many contexts, the Listening Project targeted only criminal cases dealt with by community-based programs that offered victim-offender encounter or proxy processes where community involvement ranged from very high to very low. For one of the sites, the session was hosted by an Indigenous Justice Program (IJP).Footnote 11  It is very common for IJP groups to focus on community input/participation and to include traditional ceremonies into their service delivery, but each program across Canada is unique in its approach.

Research Team

The Research Team was comprised of Just Outcomes’ Catherine Bargen (MA) and Aaron Lyons (MA), in addition to Alana Abramson (PhD). All team members have over 15 years’ experience in restorative justice and related disciplines, including casework/facilitation, program leadership, policy development, research, training and consulting. All have extensive experience working with crime victims within a restorative justice context, including cases involving severe interpersonal violence. Catherine Bargen (the Project Lead) was present at all sites and co-facilitated each session with one other team member.

Listening Session Format

The Listening Project aimed to gather participant perspectives on the following major themes or topics (detailed agenda can be reviewed in Appendix A at the end of this report):

  • Needs and Experiences: What were the needs of the victim in engaging with restorative justice, and to what extent were those needs satisfied?
  • Improvements for Restorative Justice programming: What could be improved to further shape restorative justice approaches in Canada to better serve victims of crime?
  • Reflections on the Listening Session: What learning did participants take away from this process?

The information from each of these themes are integrated into this report. Each session was scheduled on a Saturday for six hours in length, with breaks. The format of the meeting combined facilitated open dialogue on the above topics, along with a “talking circle” format utilizing a talking piece to ensure each participant was given opportunities to speak without interruption periodically through the day. Restorative justice program staff were intentionally absent for a portion of the sessions—"Needs and Experiences” were discussed in the absence of program staff to allow participants full freedom to express any concerns.

A Note About Language in this Report

The word “victim,” will be used often within this report, which some readers may find problematic. Many Listening Project participants expressed their distaste with the word and its possible connotations. “Victim” may suggest a state of helplessness or stigma, and fails to acknowledge the courage, resourcefulness and resilience of people living in the aftermath of a crime against them. As one participant put it, “’Victim’ makes me sound weak.” Some prefer “survivor”, while other terms in restorative justice discourse and practice have included, “affected person,” “harmed party,” “complainant,” and others. To be clear, “victim” can be an inadequate term, yet it is used here primarily because it remains a common self-identifier for people who have experienced a range of harm.

The report also refers to “offenders” a term which is used by the criminal justice system and can have a stigmatizing effect. Our goal in using the term is not to stigmatize people who offend by binding their identity to their harmful choices. Indeed, neither “victim” nor “offender” should be thought of as commentary about the personal characteristics of either party. In the work of restorative justice, it is common to use the terminology of identity offered by participants themselves; however because of the range of perspectives represented, this is not possible within the context of this report. We rely here instead on imperfect terminology.

Additionally, the reader will notice quotations throughout this report. These segments were captured through typed notetaking and are not taken from sound recordings. Therefore, while the authors deem them to be accurate representations of the sentiments expressed by participants, they may not always be precise.

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