Victims' Experiences with, Expectations and Perceptions of Restorative Justice: A critical Review of the Literature

Executive Summary

The topic of restorative justice has become increasingly popular both in Canada and abroad. However, there is some debate as to whether restorative justice programs adequately address victims’ needs. To this end, the present review of the literature on victims’ experiences with, expectations and perceptions of restorative justice was conducted.

In general, victims are in favour of restorative justice practices provided participation is fully voluntary. Victims like the fact that restorative justice programs recognize their interest in the case. Restorative justice programs provide victims with notification of the developments in their case and an opportunity to ask for restitution. Victims also like the idea that offenders are held accountable for their actions.

The available research is relatively consistent regarding victims’ expectations. Victims participate in restorative justice programs to seek reparation, help the offender, confront the offender with the consequences of the crime, and to ask questions such as why the offence was committed. Interestingly, regardless of the seriousness of the offence, the reasons given by victims for their participation in restorative justice programs remain quite consistent. Victims decline the offer to participate in restorative justice programs because they do not think it is worth the effort (loss too small or too trivial), they fear the offender, they are too angry with the offender or disbelieve his or her sincerity. Unfortunately, the available research tells us very little about the experiences of victims who refuse to participate in restorative justice programs.

Studies reveal that most victims who have participated in restorative justice programs are satisfied with the experience. However, when compared to offenders, victims tend to be less satisfied (Umbreit, 1994). Moreover, when compared to victims whose cases were handled in the traditional criminal justice system, there is no clear evidence to conclude that restorative programs enhance victim satisfaction. Clearly, restorative justice programs are not a panacea for victims.

There has been no systematic study of victims’ needs and how restorative justice programs can best meet those needs. While the available research has its limitations, it is clear, however, that there is a demand for restorative justice programs among victims. The question is therefore not whether restorative justice programs should be offered to victims, but how they should be offered.

Plainly, restorative justice programs must attend to victims’ needs. An important concern about existing programs is the exclusion, or minimization, of the role of crime victims. Some programs place victims’ needs far behind other priorities such as diversion or prevention. Victims’ needs must always be given priority, regardless of the aim of the program.

Despite their shortcomings, most victims who participate in restorative programs feel they benefit from them. Benefits for victims can involve the payment of restitution as well as psychological benefits. Restitution is particularly important for victims of property crimes. However, programs often fail to monitor compliance and to sanction non-payment by the offender. Regarding the psychological benefits, most victims pass through a phase of searching for an explanation as to why the crime has occurred (Reeves, 1989). While most of the research does not isolate the impact of participating in restorative justice programs on victims’ psychological well-being, there is evidence that meeting with the offender helps victims of violent crimes cope with their anger (Strang, 2000).

Placing victims’ needs first requires that programs be flexible. Different victims will have different needs. Rather than trying to impose a single ideology of what victim-offender mediation should be like, programs should strive for flexibility in response to victims’ wishes. Programs should offer a variety of services, such as indirect mediation, the exchange of videos or letters, and the offer of a meeting with the offender.

An important aspect of program organization is when to offer restorative justice programs. Clearly, there is not one time that will be good for all victims. The research shows that victims have to be “ready” for it. This makes program organization particularly challenging, as the organizer cannot know when a victim is ready. However, if victims are provided with information regarding the availability of restorative justice programs in their area, they can contact programs when they are ready. This passive approach may be most suitable for victims of serious crimes.

Mediators play a key role in restorative justice programs and must receive proper training. They must be made aware of the impact their behaviour can have on victims and how they can avoid revictimizing victims. Mediators must not think that their job is over after a meeting between victims and offenders has taken place. They have a responsibility to monitor the compliance by offenders. In addition, mediators should provide follow-up counselling to victims.

Restorative justice programs cannot replace the traditional criminal justice system. There will always be victims and offenders who choose to have their cases remain in the traditional criminal justice system. While the criminal justice system should offer victims many of the services that are offered in restorative justice programs, such as notification and restitution, it is often only within the context of restorative justice programs that these services are provided (Sherman et al., 1998). Restorative justice programs cannot replace the responsibility of criminal justice authorities to carry out victim policy, as reflected in the Statement of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime (Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Victims of Crime, 1988), and efforts must always be instituted to treat victims in the system with dignity and respect.

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