Patty O’Reilly, a ballet teacher, stands before eight men doing hard time in California’s San Quentin prison, telling about the about the killing of a husband and the trauma caused by that loss, reports the Los Angeles Times. She “describes happy futures shredded in an instant by one man’s single, terrible act.” Her path is being followed by an increasing number of crime victims and survivors. Despite ever-tougher sentences and the world’s highest incarceration rate, many victims feel the traditional method of meting out justice comes up short. Anguished and unable to heal, they are finding strength through an alternative philosophy called restorative justice.
Inspired by ancient tribal traditions and biblical teachings, restorative justice aims to achieve accountability for crimes in a direct, tangible way rather than through symbolic penalties imposed by the state. As supporters see it, offenders must understand that their crimes were not some abstract violation of law, but a harm inflicted upon real people who need a chance to be made whole again. In its purest expression, restorative justice occurs through mediated, face-to-face encounters between victim (or surviving relatives) and offender. Through the process, both sides – as well as the community damaged by the crime – theoretically are “restored.” “The criminal justice system tends to say, ‘OK, we’ve punished the guy, sayonara,’ ” said criminologist Todd Clear of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “But while punishment is important, many victims feel it’s not enough. They need closure. They need to hear why he did it and see some kind of indication that the offender gets it. Restorative justice offers them that.”