By: Jaidyn Rumpca

With just five percent of the world’s population and over twenty percent of the world’s prison population, making for the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States’ criminal legal system centers largely on punishment. But where does punishment leave victims of harm and crime? And where does it leave perpetrators of harm and crime when they are released? The simple answer to these questions is that the United States’ punishment-oriented approach to harm and crime leaves victims without the tools to heal and perpetrators without the tools to reform.

The current criminal legal system has glaring flaws. Minorities are subject to the system at disproportional rates to non-minorities. For instance, Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of White Americans, and Latinx Americans are incarcerated at over one point three times the rate of White Americans. Further, arrest recidivism rates are soaring with around forty-four percent of individuals rearrested within one year of being released from incarceration, sixty-eight percent rearrested within three years of release, and seventy-seven percent rearrested within five years of release. Moreover, victims of harm and crime often become perpetrators of harm and crime and vice versa, making it an enduring cycle of harm and crime.  

Fortunately, there are options for responding to harm and crime other than the current, punishment-oriented model. One such approach is through restorative justice. Restorative justice is a mode of crime response that focuses on healing-based solutions rather than punishment-based “solutions” to harm and crime. Harm, in the lens of restorative justice, is viewed “as a violation of the relationships between individuals” rather than “a violation against the state.” As such, restorative justice seeks to balance the needs of victims, offenders, and the community. It aims to help victims of crime heal and perpetrators of crime rehabilitate while taking accountability for their actions. This approach “requires individual, interpersonal, community, and system-wide accountability and healing.”

Restorative justice is not one specific model; rather, “it is a set of principles that can be flexibly applied to a variety of situations[.]” Generally, restorative justice entails collaboration between all parties including the victim, offender, and community, to reach a solution that helps make the victim whole again while helping the offender reform. In turn, this leads to offender rehabilitation, which itself is a mechanism for preventing future harm and crime. Some specific examples include victim and offender conversations where the offender apologizes and the victim has a chance to be heard, offender treatment programs for substance abuse and mental health, and offender community service.

While restorative justice is used in some United States jurisdictions, many have not yet adopted it. And those jurisdictions that do offer restorative justice may offer it in limited circumstances, such as only for youth offenders.

It is time to address the mass incarceration crisis in a way that meets the needs of victims, offenders, and the community alike – in a way that heals and prevents harm and crime. Restorative justice may not be the perfect solution, but it is surely a step in the right direction. Moreover, it should not be limited to certain offenders or certain crimes. Restorative justice should be widely available as one of the only known models for addressing the needs of all who are impacted by harm and crime.

Jaidyn is a 3L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her legal interests include public defense and civil rights law. Her personal interests include international travel, spending time with friends and family, hiking, and hanging out with her kitten.