What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative justice is a theory of justice that relies on reconciliation rather than punishment. The theory relies on the idea that a well-functioning society operates with a balance of rights and responsibilities. When an incident occurs which upsets that balance, methods must be found to restore the balance, so that members of the community, the victim, and offender, can come to terms with the incident and carry on with their lives.
In order for this to happen, the offender must accept responsibility for the fact that his or her behaviour has caused harm to the victim, and the victim must be prepared to negotiate and accept restitution or compensation for the offender's wrongdoing. In essence, restorative justice aims as far as possible to 'put right the wrong'. It is based on the idea that we are all connected, that crime is a violation of relationships, and that such violations create obligations.
Although formal 'restorative justice programmes' were first introduced in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, restorative justice concepts are certainly not new to South Africa. In many South African communities, the way of dealing with children has traditionally included mechanisms that encourage children to take responsibility for their actions. This includes outcomes such as an apology, restitution and reparation, and restoring relationships between offender and victim.
In addition, where a community is involved, meetings are held publicly so as to provide everyone with a sense of ownership in the process. This is still evident in the way traditional courts function and the principles they uphold. Offenders in most cases are not separated from their support system of family and close relatives, and those closest to offenders hold them responsible. In other words, concepts that have now been labeled restorative justice have been in use in South African communities for some time.
Victim-offender mediations and family group conferences are two formal types of restorative justice programmes mentioned in the Child Justice Bill. But restorative justice is not limited to these programmes. Restorative justice can embrace any other programme using restorative justice concepts.
Some other examples of restorative justice programmes are crime repair crews; victim intervention programmes; peacemaking circles; victim panels that speak to offenders; sentencing circles; community reparative boards before which offenders appear; victim-directed and citizen-involved community service by the offender; community-based support groups for crime victims; and community-based support groups for offenders.