Uses of Restorative Justice: evidence review

Review looking at international case studies to identify different approaches governments have taken to provide access to Restorative Justice services.


How does Restorative Justice conferencing work?

RJ encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions and to repair the harms they have caused, in communication with victims. Restorative justice therefore places control in the hands of those most affected by the crime, and is voluntary and collaborative. Both offender and victim are involved in a constructive dialogue to find a way forward and repair the harm caused. For example, in Norway the empowerment of communities and of the conflicting parties is central to the idea behind their National Mediation Service, which started with the idea of redefining criminal offences as conflicts[1].

RJ can take place either face to face (called conferencing) or through correspondence (called shuttle dialogue). Practice will vary, but typically the facilitator explains the ground rules and why the process is happening. The person responsible for the offence gives an account of what happened, and the person harmed describes how they were affected. Other participants (such as others affected by the crime, or support people for the main participants) may contribute their own accounts of what happened and how they were affected. All participants then discuss what could be done to set things right. The process may end with a signed written agreement regarding what should be done next.

Is Restorative Justice effective?

The ‘what works’ evidence has been canvassed elsewhere so we have only provided a short summary of the evidence below. Overall, the empirical evidence shows that RJ has a positive impact on victims and it can also reduce reoffending.

Victims: There is strong and consistent evidence that RJ can benefit people harmed by crime. For example, a review of RJ conferencing in 2013 found that victims who take part in RJ experience less fear of re-victimisation, a reduced desire for violent revenge and fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. An evidence review by the Smith Institute also notes that the post-traumatic stress benefits, in addition to improving the lives of victims, may also reduce health costs paid by tax payers, as post-traumatic stress can be both expensive to treat in its own right, and also associated with increased risk of other physical health conditions[2]. RJ can also increase victim satisfaction with how their case was handled[3]. The Smith Institute review identified four randomised control trials that found victims actually preferred face to face RJ over conventional criminal justice[4].

In an evaluation of victim experiences in New Zealand, 86% were satisfied with the restorative justice conference they attended and 84% said they would be likely to recommend restorative justice to others in a similar situation[5].

Scottish evaluations of RJ are rare but the limited findings are promising. An evaluation of Glasgow’s youth restorative justice services found that 56% of those contacted took part in a restorative process and levels of satisfaction amongst those who participated were high[6].

Offenders: The evidence base is less consistent when it comes to the impact of RJ on reoffending, but is still highly promising. A comprehensive review of RJ interventions by the Campbell Collaboration concluded that restorative justice conferences cause ‘a modest but highly cost-effective reduction in repeat offending, with substantial benefits for victims’[7]. The average effect of the ten studies reviewed by the Campbell Collaboration indicated that face-to-face RJ conferences resulted in offenders committing significantly less crime than their counterparts randomly assigned to standard criminal justice alone. The effect of RJ on violent crime was larger than its effects on property crime[8].

Similarly, the Smith Institute evidence review concluded that RJ “can work very well as a general policy”, and that “In general, RJ seems to reduce crime more effectively with more, rather than less, serious crimes”, while also noting that evidence on its effectiveness varies between different programmes and target groups. They also present some evidence that where RJ is offered before charging, it has increased the number of offences brought to justice by two to four times.

In New Zealand, a recent evaluation found that the reoffending rate for those who participated in restorative justice was 7.5% lower over three years compared with offenders who had not gone through RJ, and offenders who went through RJ committed 20% fewer offences per offender within the following three years[9].

However, there is sometimes a gap between restorative justice theory and practice[10]. For example, a study found that Family Group Conferencing practices in New Zealand - which is widely considered an international exemplar of restorative justice - were highly variable, with some poor practices, including delays, a lack of communication, and instances where young people and family members felt disempowered[11]. Therefore it is important to evaluate RJ services to ensure they are working as intended and outcomes are being achieved.

Serious Offences

Although RJ conferencing is already used in response to serious, sensitive and complex offences, and there is research showing that it can benefit victims of serious crimes, the use of RJ for serious crimes remains contentious. As noted above, the Smith Institute review concluded that “in general, RJ seems to reduce crime more effectively with more, rather than less, serious crimes”. Research has also found that restorative justice can be safe, effective and empowering for people harmed by sexual offences[12 13 14 15 16]. However facilitators need to be equipped to deal with the complex needs and dynamics related to certain types of offending behaviour[17], and in some cases will require specific training[18].

How does Restorative Justice work in Scotland?

Restorative justice has been available in Scotland for several decades, but its use has usually been limited to low-level and youth offending, and it is only rarely used with adult, serious or persistent offenders, despite evidence that it can aid with victim recovery and reduce reoffending in such cases. Moreover, projects tend to be small-scale and limited to specific areas (Community Justice Scotland report that they are now available in only a minority of local authorities)[19], or they are restricted to responding to particular offence types – for example the current RJ project in Edinburgh for people on Community Payback Orders only addresses hate crime.

In terms of youth offending, the Children’s Reporter usually refers cases as an alternative, or addition, to a Children’s Hearing. Additionally, ‘Police Restorative Warnings’ are used to ensure the young person appreciates the harm caused by the offence. Although the process may involve the victim, this happens in a minority of cases and therefore the intervention can only be considered ‘partly restorative’.

RJ has been used in Scotland for more serious crimes such as culpable homicide and serious assault in a small number of instances, but it has been noted that there is currently a lack of funding and support for specialist training to properly equip practitioners to deal with more complex and sensitive cases[20].

What is the basis for developing Restorative Justice in Scotland?

The current Programme for Government includes the strong commitment that ‘We want to have restorative justice services widely available across Scotland by 2023 with the interests of victims at their heart. We will publish a Restorative Justice Action Plan by Spring 2019, that will set out how we will deliver this aim’[21].

A new restorative justice vision and strategy are being developed for Scotland, against the backdrop of the recently adopted Council of Europe Recommendation concerning restorative justice in criminal matters.[22] Although this recommendation is not legally binding on Scotland, it indicates the standards that would be considered good practice and strongly supports the development of restorative justice in countries which do not have comprehensive RJ infrastructure. The most important of these is that:

“Member States are asked to develop the capacity to deliver restorative justice in all geographical areas in their jurisdictions, with respect to all offences, and at all stages of their criminal justice processes. Parties should not be excluded from restorative justice solely on the basis of their location or the type of offence in question.”

Other key rules from the Recommendation, for Scotland to consider as it develops its RJ strategy include:

  • The provision of sufficient resourcing to meet demand up to good practice standards, and to continuously develop.
  • The introduction of a presumption in favour of access, where criminal justice professionals could be asked for their reasoning for not referring a case to RJ, to encourage its use.
  • The potential role of RJ as a diversion for formal processing by the criminal justice system for young and low level offenders while enabling victims to participate in the response to offending and to have their needs met.
  • Raising and achieving social awareness of RJ.
  • RJ should be delivered in line with good practice, including voluntariness and fully informed consent, and be subject to procedural safeguards, such as access to grievance procedures.
  • Training providers should be monitored, accredited or be otherwise overseen by an authority with the required competencies.
  • Facilitators should be trained to minimum standards and should be afforded the time and other resources required to undertake preparation with the parties, to conduct full risk assessments, and to engage in appropriate levels of follow-up after any process.



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