Local governments can invest in this strategy using State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

  • This strategy can help prevent violence. The U.S. Department of Treasury has indicated that strategies that help achieve this outcome are eligible for the use of Fiscal Recovery Funds.
  • Investments in this strategy are SLFRF-eligible as long as they are made in qualified census tracts or are designed to assist populations or communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Program overview

  • Repairing the damage caused by an offense: Restorative justice (RJ) programs provide an alternative to traditional court processing for those who have committed low-level offenses, primarily youth. Instead of focusing on punishing the offender, programs emphasize healing the damage inflicted on victims and the community. They can be administered by both in-house institutional programs (such as schools and court systems) or via a nonprofit specialist.

  • Facilitating meetings between victim and offender: Restorative justice programs vary in form, but generally involve a meeting between the individual who committed the offense, the victim, and a trained facilitator. Some models also include family or community members. During the meeting, the offender is asked to take responsibility for their actions, the group identifies ways of repairing the harm done, and the offender may be asked to compensate the victims for that harm. In the event the victim does not wish to meet with the offender in-person, indirect mediation can occur.

  • Addressing lower-level crimes, usually committed by youth: Typically, restorative justice programs seek to address lower-level crimes committed by youth offenders. These may include “victimless” crimes (e.g., traffic violations or status offenses), property-related offenses (e.g., personal theft, shoplifting, and vandalism), and some violent crimes (e.g., minor assault).

  • Referring and screening cases for appropriateness: Institutions that work directly with youth, like schools and court systems, may have internal restorative justice programs. Referrals are made both internally (e.g., by teachers or intake officers) and externally (e.g., by youth organizations or police). Cases are then screened for appropriateness, and RJ program staff prepare for and facilitate sessions for eligible cases. Organizations without an in-house RJ program may refer cases to a nonprofit RJ provider.

Multiple studies with rigorous designs provide some evidence for restorative justice programs as an effective alternative to incarceration for youth offenders.

  • A 2018 systematic review found that youth offenders who participated in a restorative justice program had lower recidivism rates, showed greater compliance with restitution, and were more likely to repair the harm they caused when compared to youth who went through traditional justice processing.
  • Identify youth before justice-involvement: Diverting youth from the traditional juvenile justice system may reduce the likelihood that they exhibit future delinquent behavior. By developing partnerships with community organizations (e.g., school systems, youth organizations) and clearly communicating eligibility criteria, restorative justice programs can create a strong referral network to identify and intervene with youth before they first interact with the justice system.

  • Standardize the screening process: For a restorative justice approach to be effective, offenders must be willing to take responsibility for their actions and work to repair the harm they caused. To ensure a good match, RJ program staff should screen offenders for these qualities prior to accepting a case. If a case is not appropriate for the RJ process, it can be returned to the traditional juvenile justice process or referred to a different diversion program.

  • Tailor approach to the victim’s needs: Even in a structured environment, victims will vary in how comfortable they are engaging with the offender. Therefore, program staff should select a restorative justice approach that respects the victim’s preferences. For example, while the victim-offender conferencing model may be appropriate for victims willing to engage in face-to-face dialogue with the offender, indirect mediation or a group-based approach (e.g., family group conferencing) may be more appropriate for victims preferring separation from the offender or greater social support during the session.

  • Use data to evaluate outcomes: Restorative justice programs should collect a range of data to assess their effectiveness, including the proportion of referrals that proceed to the restorative process, the rate at which offenders meet the terms of outcome agreements, and more. Collecting and analyzing these data can allow an RJ program to better demonstrate its effectiveness as an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice process.