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

1. Introduction

1. Introduction

1.1 Background

In its October 12, 1999 Speech From the Throne, the federal government signalled its intention to “launch a program of restorative justice to help victims overcome the trauma of crime and provide non-violent offenders with a chance to help repair the damage caused by their actions” (Department of Justice Canada, 2000: Restorative Justice section, para. 1). Increasingly, criminal justice policy has incorporated restorative justice concepts in an effort to respond effectively to crime. Examples include the new Youth Criminal Justice Act (Bill C-7) with its statement of restorative principles and increased opportunities and encouragement for the use of restorative approaches, and the report by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, entitled: Victims of Crime – A Voice Not a Veto (1998).

The term “restorative justice” has been defined in many ways. In this paper, the following definition by Tony Marshall (1999) is used: “Restorative Justice is a process whereby all parties with a stake in a specific offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future.” Restorative justice approaches crime as aninjury or wrong done to another person rather than solely as a matter of breaking the law or offending against the state. Accordingly, it is concerned with reparation, either materially or symbolically, and it encourages the victim and the offender to play active roles in resolving conflict through discussion and negotiation.

However, while most restorative justice programs rely on victim participation for their success, they have usually evolved from probation services and are offender oriented (Wemmers, 1997; Marshall and Merry, 1990). From the selection of cases to the mediated outcome, victims’ interests are systematically neglected (Marshall and Merry, 1990). This has led to concern about the adequacy of restorative justice programs for victims of crime. While victims often suffer damages for which they desire reparation, the prospect of meeting with and negotiating a settlement with the offender can be daunting for crime victims (Wemmers, 1996). Participation for both the victim and the offender is voluntary; however, there is some concern that victims may feel pressured into taking part (Department of Justice, 2000; Wemmers, 1996; Marshall and Merry, 1990). For example, a victim who is told that the young offender could avoid a criminal record if he or she is able to negotiate a settlement with the victim may feel pressure to cooperate to avoid destroying the young person’s future. Another concern is that victims will take part simply because of the absence of any real alternatives in the existing criminal justice system (Wemmers and Van Hecke, 1992). A victim who desires restitution may find that the possibilities for restitution within the criminal justice system are largely theoretical and may feel forced to turn to restorative programs to request compensation from the offender. Respect and protection of victim interests must be ensured both in restorative justice programs and the traditional criminal justice system. In addition, there is some concern that contacting the victim months after the offence and asking if he or she is interested in meeting with the offender may in itself stir up painful memories of the victimization and add to the victim’s suffering (Reeves, 2000). If confronting victims with the possibility of meeting their offender(s) exacerbates victims’ suffering, this should be discouraged.

Supporters of restorative justice argue that these programs recognize victims’ interest in their own case. The active role played by victims means that they can make demands and accept or reject a decision. For example, Roach (1999) argued that because victims maintain decision-making power, restorative justice is a more satisfying alternative for victims of crime than the traditional criminal justice system. Others, such as Wemmers (2000), suggested that restorative justice programs are attractive to victims not because they give victims decision-making power, but because they offer them input into the decision-making process. The question is, what do victims want and are their wants or needs addressed in restorative justice programs?

This review of the literature on victims’ experiences with, expectations and perceptions of restorative justice has been commissioned by the Department of Justice Canada in efforts to support the Government of Canada’s commitment to ensure that the views and concerns of victims are considered at every stage of their involvement in the criminal justice system.

1.2 Objectives

The aim of this review is to provide a comprehensive overview of victims’ views and concerns, based on a selected examination of the existing research on restorative justice. In addition, the study will identify strengths and weaknesses of the existing literature. It will also highlight areas that may be of future concern or relevance for the Department of Justice, in particular regarding future policy development and strategies.

1.3 Methodology

The review of the literature on victims’ experiences with restorative justice will be based on studies involving victims who participated in restorative justice programs. In addition to their experiences, it is important to know whether or not, and to what extent, their experiences met their expectations. In other words, how satisfied were they? In the review, a distinction will be made between victims’ satisfaction with the outcome (i.e. what did they agree on) and satisfaction with the process (i.e. how was an agreement reached).[1] The third topic of the literature review, victims’ perceptions of restorative justice, is not necessarily restricted to victims who participated in a restorative justice program. Depending on the available research, it may include victims in general, as well as victims who refused to participate in a restorative justice program.

The present review will examine available program evaluations that include information concerning victims’ experiences and attitudes. In addition, any general survey information on victims’ attitudes toward restorative justice, if available, will be included. Besides evaluation research, discussion papers addressing critical issues and developments in restorative justice will also be included. The review will be based on available publications of Canadian as well as foreign research.

In the search for documentation, university libraries and documentation centres were queried. Electronic databases, in particular National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS), Access to Justice, Criminal Justice Abstracts (CJA), International Abstracts, Sociofile and Current Contents were included in the search. The search also included the Web sites of advocacy groups, such as the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, as well as government Web sites. In addition, the researcher contacted colleagues working in the field regarding new research and publications.

1.4 Layout of the Report

The report is divided into six chapters. Chapter 2 is based on the research on victims of crime and is not limited to those victims who participated in restorative justice programs. Victims’ expectations and experiences in restorative justice programs are the focus of chapter 3. The findings are presented within the framework of the various programs. In chapter 4, research on restorative justice and special groups of victims is addressed. Chapter 5 contains the findings and their implications for future research and policy development. The literature looked at in this report is listed in chapter 6.


[1] Research and theory on procedural justice suggests that satisfaction with the process is more important than satisfaction with the outcome and that fair procedures provide a cushion of support, thereby making negative outcomes more palatable. (See Wemmers, 1996; Tyler, 1990; Lind and Tyler, 1988.)

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