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The Role of Restorative Justice in a Criminal Justice System

As many with criminal justice careers can tell you, restorative justice offers alternatives to handling criminals.

More than 6.7 million people are incarcerated in the United States.* If that seems high, that’s because it is. The U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population despite having only 5% of the world’s overall population. Because of this, policymakers, think tanks, nonprofits, and those working in the criminal justice and criminology fields are trying to find workable ways to decrease our prison population. One possible solution is to rely more on restorative justice and less on punitive justice.

What Is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice is not a new idea. In fact, it has been a common form of justice around the world for centuries. However, it’s quite different from the punitive system most of us are familiar with. Instead of locking criminals up, a restorative justice system requires them to make amends for their crimes and change their ways going forward. It’s a system that sees crime not as a breaking of rules but as an act of harm. Because of this, it views incarceration as an indirect, incomplete, and ultimately ineffective response to crime.

The Role of Restorative Justice in a Criminal Justice System

How Does It Work?

There’s not one, universal system of restorative justice. However, the Centre for Justice & Reconciliation—the research and educational arm of Prison Fellowship International—lays out a basic structure for how restorative justice should work.


In a punitive system of justice, the dispute is between the accused and the state. The victim does not play an active role. In a restorative system, all parties are invited to the table and included in the court’s proceedings and the justice process.


When possible, and when both parties agree, the perpetrator and the victim come together, discuss the crime and its effects, and agree on what happens next. In situations where the parties cannot or will not meet, this step can be augmented or left out.

Making Amends

Instead of being incarcerated, the convicted criminal is expected to make amends through the process of apology and restitution. The restitution can be ordered by the court or agreed to between the perpetrator and the victim.


Both the victim and the convicted criminal are given the assistance they need to reintegrate into their community. Mental health professionals, faith leaders, social workers, and/or peers form support networks designed to mitigate the negative effects of being a victim or help the criminal change his or her ways.

What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks?

Restorative justice can be a much more humane method of dealing with crime, and it opens the door to healing in a way punitive systems do not. It can also be effective. Studies have shown that restorative justice can lead to:§

  • Substantially reduced repeat offending for some offenders.
  • A reduction in crime victims’ post-traumatic stress symptoms and related costs.
  • Both victims and offenders experiencing more satisfaction with justice. 
  • A reduction in crime victims’ desire for violent revenge against their offenders.
  • A reduction in the costs of criminal justice.
  • A reduction in recidivism.  

However, restorative justice does have drawbacks. The support networks necessary for reintegration can be difficult to assemble and maintain, plus few communities feel comfortable allowing certain types of criminals—such as violent offenders—to re-enter the community. There’s also the issue of victims who have no interest in participating in the justice system. Forcing victims to participate is not an option, and yet without the victim’s participation, restorative justice loses much of its purpose. For these and other reasons, restorative justice is practiced far less than punitive justice throughout the world.

How Can You Learn More?

Mass incarceration is just one of the many issues impacting criminal justice and criminal justice jobs throughout the world. If you’re interested in implementing or joining a restorative justice program—or any other criminal justice program that can reduce incarceration—you can put yourself on the path to a criminal justice career with a BS in Criminal Justice. Through a bachelor’s in criminal justice program, you’ll study national and international criminal justice practices and gain knowledge of contemporary theory on the nature, extent, and cause of crime.

If you’re concerned that earning a bachelor’s degree might disrupt your job or life, you should take a look at online learning. Through a criminal justice degree program at an online university, you won’t have to travel to a campus and take classes at a specific time. Instead, when you enroll in an online criminal justice degree program, you can complete coursework from home on a schedule designed to give you the flexibility you need to work full time and handle other responsibilities. It’s a great choice for anyone looking to start a criminal justice career. And it can help you become a leader in restorative justice or other means of reducing incarceration.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online BS in Criminal Justice degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*D. Kaeble, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015, Bureau of Justice Statistics, on the Internet at

†M. Yee He Lee, Yes, U.S. Locks People Up at a Higher Rate Than Any Other Country, Washington Post, on the Internet at

‡Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, Lesson 1: What Is Restorative Justice, on the Internet at

§L. Sherman, Abstract, Restorative Justice: The Evidence, on the Internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, 1-800-621-7440,