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Children and Youth Services Review 34 (2012) 35–42
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Children and Youth Services Review
journal homepage:
Review of research on victims’ experiences in restorative justice: Implications for
youth justice ☆,☆☆
Jung Jin Choi a,⁎, Gordon Bazemore b, Michael J. Gilbert c
School of Social Work, Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Rd, SO 316, Boca Raton, FL 33431, United States
School of Criminology/Criminal Justice, Florida Atlantic University, United States
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Texas at San Antonio, United States
a r t i c l e
i n f o
Article history:
Received 24 May 2011
Received in revised form 14 August 2011
Accepted 17 August 2011
Available online 26 August 2011
Restorative justice
Crime victims
Youth offenders
Youth justice
a b s t r a c t
Despite claims that restorative justice is “victim centered,” and deliberately focused on healing harms to victims, some studies report that particular applications of restorative justice may not be fully consistent with its
fundamental principles and values. Under such circumstances these programs may focus on outcomes (e.g.,
rehabilitation of youthful offenders) rather than process, and in doing so, may fail to identify and respond effectively to victims’ needs. To take a closer look at this phenomenon, this article examines a sample of published restorative justice studies that highlight ‘negative’ experiences of victims. Given a number of studies
that indicate victims typically have satisfying experiences in restorative justice practices such reports of negative experiences and practices should be viewed as ‘outliers.’ However, such outliers may provide substantively meaningful insights that inform best practice standard for restorative justice. Implications are drawn
for the use of restorative justice practices for youth justice.
© 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Restorative justice (RJ) emerged in the late 1970s primarily as a
response to calls from victim advocates for alternative approaches
that expand victims’ rights in justice processes and promote outcomes that address needs of victims, offenders, and communities
(Bennett, 2007; Bottoms, 2003; United Nations Office for Drugs and
Crime, 2006; Van Ness & Strong, 2010; Zehr, 2005). In the past
three decades, the theory and practice of RJ have been widely expanded and recognized within the field of justice studies as a sound
approach to meeting the needs of crime victims (Braithwaite, 2002;
Umbreit & Armour, 2011; United Nations Office for Drugs and
Crime, 2006; Van Ness & Strong, 2010; Zehr, 2002).
1.1. The research: evidence-based practice
In general, research indicates that RJ can be effective in redressing
the harms experienced by crime victims (Bazemore & Schiff, 2005;
Strang, 2002; Strang et al., 2006; Umbreit, Vos, & Coates, 2005). Specifically, studies indicate that RJ programs provide more opportunities
for crime victims to have their voices heard, receive answers to
their questions about the offense and the offender, and increase the
likelihood of restitution payment (Bazemore & Schiff, 2005; Bradshaw
& Umbreit, 1998; Umbreit et al., 2005; Umbreit, Coates, & Roberts, 2001;
Umbreit, Coates, & Vos, 2002). Victims also often report that the RJ process provided a sense of fairness and satisfaction (Daly, 2006; Strang
et al., 2006; Umbreit et al., 2005). In their recent study Strang et al.
(2006) report a positive association between participation in RJ processes and an increase in victims’ feelings of empathy toward offenders.
In addition, some scholars and practitioners have even expressed a normative expectation that RJ often may empower victims (Pranis, 2001;
Van Wormer, 2004). Consistent with this assertion, research findings
often reveal that victims participating in restorative processes report
feeling less fearful of re-victimization and may view the restorative process as a journey of healing (Bazemore & Schiff, 2005; Umbreit & Vos,
2000). Presser and Hamilton (2006) report that victims found restorative processes to be persuasive rather than coercive because victims
appeared to feel, or reported feeling, free to express their feelings fully
and were influential within sessions. As a result of such findings, RJ is increasingly viewed as a viable approach that may meet the needs of victims more effectively than traditional criminal justice processes (United
Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, 2006).
1.2. The research: emerging concerns
☆ A preliminary finding of the article was presented at The Academy of Criminal Justice
Sciences Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada in 2011.
☆☆ Authors are grateful for the constructive feedbacks from the anonymous
⁎ Corresponding author.
E-mail address: [email protected] (J.J. Choi).
0190-7409/$ – see front matter © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Despite this commitment to RJ, some advocates also have raised important concerns that RJ programs may fall short of fully meeting victim
needs (Achilles & Zehr, 2001; Daly, 2002, 2003, 2006; Herman, 2004).
Several studies report that some victims have anxieties and fears
J.J. Choi et al. / Children and Youth Services Review 34 (2012) 35–42
about participating in a process where they interact with the offender
and that they may feel pressured to participate (Bazemore & Schiff,
2005; Choi & Gilbert, 2010; Daly, 2002, 2006; Morris & Maxwell,
1997; Strang, 2002; Umbreit et al., 1994, Umbreit, 1999; Wemmers,
2002). In particular, some victims express feelings of re-victimized during the processes (Bazemore & Schiff, 2005). Such findings suggest a
possibility that victims and their needs can easily be marginalized,
and in some cases, even re-victimized by restorative processes. When
this occurs, victims may not experience restorative outcomes. Daly
(2002, 2003, 2006) has observed this phenomenon as a ‘gap’ between
the theoretical ideal and actual practice in RJ. However, she also notes
that adverse effects are found much less frequently than positive impacts. Yet, such concerns call for careful examination of victims and
their experiences within RJ processes.
1.3. Learning from “outliers”
In Outliers: The story of success Malcolm Gladwell (2008) attempts
to examine highly complex layers of a few very successful people or
exceptional situations. From a statistical point of view, these people
or situations are outliers as their success is “markedly different in
value from the others of the sample” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 3). In his inquiry, Gladwell asks the question “what makes them (the outliers) so
successful?” Inspired by Gladwell’s work, to take a closer look at the
concerns described above, this article examines a sample of published
restorative justice studies that highlight ‘negative’ experiences of victims as part of their overall findings. Despite the abundance of
reported success stories in RJ, a few studies have reported some negative findings related to the failure of restorative practices to meet victims’ needs. Given consistent evidence of the effectiveness of RJ,
reports of negative experiences by victims are viewed as “outliers.”
However, such outliers are rarely subjected to critical analysis.
This article examines these outliers in a non-quantitative manner.
The purpose of this paper is to reveal commonalities in “outlier” findings which may inform best practice standards for restorative justice.
These findings may also provide lessons for applications of restorative
justice with youthful offenders. The literature search was augmented
with online resources such as the ‘Center for RJ and Peacemaking’
( and ‘RJ Online’ (http://www.restorativejustice.
org). In both cases, searches used “restorative justice,” “restorative
dialog,” “victim offender mediation,” “family group conferencing,”
“circle sentencing” and “peacemaking circles” as key words.
A review of the sources cited in this article would reveal that most
of the theorists and researchers identified recognize that RJ practices
may not be for everyone and that there are circumstances where such
approaches may be inappropriate. Furthermore, Daly (2006) notes
that actual practice may never fully realize the idealized vision of restorative justice, but more importantly, such negative experiences are
often preventable when those practices closely approximate theory.
2. Promise, rise, and conflicts of restorative justice
2.1. The promise of restorative justice
In making the case for RJ, advocates often point out problems associated with the traditional criminal justice system. For example,
Herman (2004) noted that in the traditional criminal justice system,
victims often feel ignored, excluded, and disrespected by the system.
In addition, victims are rarely provided with assistance to interact in
meaningful ways with the offender (Zehr, 2002, 2005). As a result,
victims report that their needs were not fully addressed and express
dissatisfaction with the legal processes used. Achilles and Zehr
(2001) argued that what justice processes should provide is a safe
place where victims can express emotions, regain a sense of safety
and security, obtain restitution and answers to their questions, express their truth, vent feelings, regain a sense of vindication, and
personal empowerment. According to Strang (2002, 2004), what victims want from the criminal justice system is a less formal process,
participation in their case, more information about case processing
and outcomes, respectful and fair treatment by justice agencies, and
restoration (material and emotional). Unfortunately, these rather
basic needs are seldom provided in the traditional justice processes.
Restorative justice advocates argue that applications of restorative
principles and values can be beneficial to victims in a number of ways.
For example, Herman (2004) and Strang (2004) noted that even in the
absence of the offender, RJ practices consistent with the underlying
values that guide the theory offer a healing forum where victims are:
1) provided an opportunity to tell their story and to be heard; 2) viewed
as stakeholders; 3) able to obtain answers for their questions (from community members and other victims); and, 4) able to reconnect to their
communities. Additionally, when victims have an opportunity for meaningful interaction on their own terms with offenders, such interaction
can be transformative — from suffering in silence to shared healing,
from isolation to community support, from powerlessness to empowerment, from depression to reengagement (Herman, 2004; Strang, 2004;
Van Ness & Strong, 2010; Zehr, 2002, 2005). In order to meet the needs
of victims and to achieve restorative outcomes through the encounter
with offenders, advocates argue that such RJ programs must ensure consistent and continuous focus on core principles (Bazemore & Schiff, 2005;
United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, 2006). The Restorative Justice
Consortium (2003, p. 482) identifies several key principles for victim
treatment in restorative processes: 1) respect for their personal experiences, needs and feelings; 2) acknowledgement of their harm or loss;
3) recognition of their claim for amends; 4) opportunity to communicate
with the person who caused the harm or loss, if that person is willing;
and 5) recognition as the primary beneficiary of reparation.
2.2. The rise of restorative justice
Interestingly, critics of RJ such as Miller, Gibson, and Byrd (2008)
argued that the rise of the modern RJ process may be associated
with the shortcomings of United States criminal and juvenile justice
systems, which are driven by retributive justice and often reported
as being ineffective and at times counterproductive. Retributive justice, based on deterrence and/or just deserts theories, has dominated
the practice of justice in most criminal justice systems (Zehr, 2005).
While the punitive “tough on crime” trend began in the 1980s, by
the mid-1990s punitive mandatory sentences by criminal courts became a common phenomenon (Feld, 1993, 1999). However, research,
especially on youth offenders, has indicated that solely punitive sanctions (e.g., boot camps and incarceration only) are unlikely to reduce
reoffending (Butts & Mears, 2001; Cullen & Gendreau, 2000; Jacobson,
2005; MacKenzie, 2000; Rogers, 1989; Tonry & Petersilia, 1999).
Restorative justice, on the other hand, recognizes the importance
of the interpersonal dimension of crime and the role of relationships
between people (Zehr, 2002, 2005). In this view, crime is a violation
of people and relationships as victims are regarded as human beings,
rather than witnesses or evidence (Van Ness & Strong, 2010). This difference provides a rationale for justice to be concerned with repairing
damaged relationships between those involved in crimes — victim,
offender, and community (Llewellyn, 2007; Zehr, 2002, 2005). Offenders, of course, must carry the primary responsibility for ‘making
things right’ for those harmed through sincere efforts to make
amends, repair harms and relationships (United Nations Office for
Drugs and Crime, 2006; Zehr, 2005). In RJ, accountability for offenders
requires that they work collaboratively using dialog-driven processes
that involve direct, respectful, interpersonal and problem-solving
communication with other stakeholders such as victims and communities (Van Ness & Strong, 2010; Zehr, 2005). Such dialog may promote accountability, healing, and opportunities to make amends
(Umbreit & Armour, 2011; Zehr, 2005).
J.J. Choi et al. / Children and Youth Services Review 34 (2012) 35–42
2.3. The conflicts of restorative justice
In an attempt to explain the rise of RJ in recent years, Bottoms
(2003) provided an insightful observation. The argument here is
that the rise of RJ is ‘anomalous.’ At one level, the unpredicted growth
in popularity of RJ can be viewed as a new dimension of the victims’
movement that advocates increased use of victim compensation and
victim statements. At another level, Bottoms argues that RJ can be
very appealing to contemporary penal policymakers because it offers
a possibility for pro-social and moral education for young offenders
within a neighborhood or community-based system and networks
of social relationships in this morally changing contemporary society.
Bottoms’ argument, made in British contexts, provides a possible explanation for why many, perhaps most, RJ programs in the United
States deal with youthful offenders. Bottoms’ observation also suggests a possible explanation for the offender-centered focus that is
often noticeable in the RJ approaches adopted in many juvenile justice RJ programs. In these programs, the emphasis is often not
victim-centered, which is directly inconsistent with RJ theory and
well recognized best practices.
Currently, some pressure also exists for the RJ community to emphasize prevention of reoffending, especially among youthful offenders. Critiques of RJ often argue that RJ should focus more on its
capability to reduce recidivism, and argue that advocates must
make this a priority goal (Miller et al., 2008). Such a view, however,
is not limited to critics. Indeed, even within the RJ community, the
same kinds of cautionary arguments can be heard. While RJ advocates
rightly focus on the value of these processes for victims, most of these
advocates also recognize that preventing reoffending behaviors is a
legitimate priority (Robinson & Shapland, 2008). Moreover, there appears to be a growing consensus in the research literature that although RJ is not a rehabilitation program, the outcome of RJ
participation by offenders is often rehabilitative (Bazemore & Bell,
Recently the number of studies reporting impacts of RJ on recidivism
has increased sharply. Studies tend to support the hypothesis that RJ interventions were statistically, or plausibly associated with significant
reductions in recidivism, particularly with low-risk offenders (Bergseth
& Bouffard, 2007; Bonta, Jesseman, Rugge, & Cormier, 2006; de Beus &
Rodriguez, 2007; McGarrell & Hipple, 2007; Nugent, Williams, &
Umbreit, 2003; Rodriguez, 2007). Although some argue that reducing
recidivism is a side effect of RJ, we agree with Robinson and Shapland
(2008) that preventing reoffending is an important goal for RJ — as
long as practitioners do not place primary emphasis on this outcome, or become primarily offender-focused. In other words, the secondary goal of
reduced recidivism should not interfere with or take precedence over
meeting the needs and wishes of other stakeholders, particularly
3. Reviewing victims’ experiences in restorative justice
In what ways then, and/or to what extent, does RJ fail to meet victims’ needs? In this section, we review a sample of published articles
and books during the last two decades, from 1989 to 2010, that report
findings of negative victim experiences, as a part of their study findings, with a focus on unpacking common themes, problems and
3.1. Umbreit and colleagues
Umbreit and colleagues have documented successful RJ experiences
in many articles and books over the last two decades. However, some of
their works also include evidence of negative findings about victims’ experiences. First, in their 1994 book, entitled Victim meets offender: The
impact of RJ and mediation Umbreit et al., 1994 reported negative
themes mentioned by victims after participation in victim-offender
mediation (VOM) programs. The most commonly mentioned problems
were related to the lack of authority in the program to assure the completion of restitution, and a perception of inadequate punishment for
the offenders. Second, some victims mentioned dissatisfaction with mediators: the mediator’s style was inadequate, unprofessional or their
competence was questioned. Another concern expressed by some victims was insufficient preparation by the mediator. For example, consider this statement: “She could have told us more about the process”
(Umbreit et al., 1994, p. 99). A few victims felt that they were coerced
into mediation. For example, some felt that they had been led to believe
that they had to go through the program to get money back. Lastly,
some victims reported that they felt re-victimized by the experience.
Of all of these findings, the last one is the most unfortunate because it
is directly contrary to the underlying theory, values, principles, and outcomes believed to be paramount in RJ. Umbreit and colleagues have
continually reported similar issues and concerns in their subsequent
work (Coates, Umbreit, & Vos, 2003; Umbreit et al., 2001; Umbreit
et al., 2002; Umbreit et al., 2005; Umbreit & Armour, 2011; Umbreit,
Coates, & Roberts, 1998).
3.2. Morris and Maxwell
Morris and Maxwell (1997), in observing family group conferences in New Zealand, noted that a third of victims reported that
they were not satisfied with their experiences, primarily because
the promised arrangement or reparation agreements fell through afterward. This is similar to what Umbreit and colleagues reported earlier. Additionally, due to the lack of follow-up, some victims in New
Zealand complained that they were not informed of the eventual outcome of the conference. A quarter of victims said that they felt worse
as a result of their participation, mostly because they did not feel that
the offenders and their families were truly sorry. In addition, 85% of
the victims who did not attend the conference mentioned that the
reason was not being invited or being inadequately notified. In
short, poor practice and inadequate planning were most strongly associated with victims’ decisions to not participate.
3.3. Strang
In her study on victims’ …
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