Restorative justice has historical roots

Published on Saturday, 28 December 2013 21:07 - Written by

An issue closely related to mandatory minimum sentences is that of “restorative justice.” It’s part of a growing movement to rethink how we conduct criminal law proceedings. The issue makes for some strange bedfellows — conservatives concerned about local control and biblical principles are siding with liberals who they would usually say are “soft on crime.”

But the principle of restorative justice is valid.

“In Louisiana, a man is serving life in prison for stealing three belts from a department store,” writes Derek Cohen in The Federalist. “This prison sentence could cost taxpayers a million dollars, but it is unclear if the store ever got the belts back.”

Cohen cites religious precedents for restorative justice.

“Every major religious tradition teaches that those who steal should make their victims whole, including the biblical command that three times the value of stolen property be paid back, but restitution is ordered and paid in less than a third of property offense cases,” he writes. “Obstacles to obtaining restitution include overuse of incarceration for property offenders who are not career criminals, the imposition of excessive fines and fees to fund government before the victim has collected restitution, and collateral consequences of conviction such as denial of occupational licenses that make it hard for many ex-offenders to hold a job.”

The perversion of justice comes from our tendency to see the state as the victim of a crime, rather than the individual who was, in fact, victimized.

“Restorative justice programs are a better alternative that return us to the original conception in western civilization of a crime as one person harming another,” Cohen writes. “Restorative justice programs operate under the belief that the individual who suffered the direct harm of the criminal act should be permitted to make decisions relevant to the case, should be made whole before any funds are taken by the government, and should be granted the opportunity to confront their victimizer with the harm he or she had wrought.”

We’ve retained some of these principles, to lesser and greater degrees. Victim impact statements are often included during the sentencing of those convicted of crimes.

But Cohen and others are calling for a broader use of restorative justice principles when dealing with property crimes and lower-level offenses. History shows they work.

“Though limited in adoption, restorative justice programs have shown promising results in dealing with low-level offenders in the United States and abroad,” he writes. “Studies have shown that in nearly 90 percent of mediated cases an agreement is reached and fulfilled. Victim satisfaction is far higher than in the court system and recidivism is lower, as many offenders come to better understand how their actions did not just violate the words of a law on a piece of paper, but also harmed another human being. This is to say nothing of the avoided costs of processing such cases in the formal justice system.”

Supporting restorative justice programs isn’t being soft of crime.

It’s restoring local control and even biblical principles to the criminal justice system, in a way that benefits everyone.