Restorative Justice: What is it? Why is it better than the justice system we have now?



January 10, 2008

by Johan D. Tangelder*

When Jane Creba was murdered in Toronto on Boxing Day 2005, politicians reacted with their predictable “get tough policy.” Politicians seem to feed on the rise of violence in Canada’s big cities. They promise to ban all guns, to lock up criminals, slam the prison doors shut and throw away the keys. Aside from kissing babies, visiting kindergartens and bribing the electorate with expensive programs, talking tough on crime is certainly the most popular political pastime.

Unfortunately, politicians often offer simple answers to complex problems – and the public is eager to accept them. Even many Christians have joined in the chorus calling for severe punitive treatment of all offenders. But the crisis in the Canadian criminal justice system is serious and tough talk alone won’t solve it.

More prisons? Longer sentences?

Is a tough no-holds-barred attitude to crime the answer? Does the law-and-order approach of more prisons and longer sentences work in the real world of victims, offenders, and communities?

I don’t believe so.

The problem is that this approach is merely an outgrowth of our postmodern philosophy of criminal justice. The current justice system ignores the victims of crime and instead focuses on offenders, asking why they broke the law, and how they should be punished so that they won’t commit a crime again.

But when a crime is committed victims suffer from emotional trauma or perhaps a physical injury or material losses. Yet they are the forgotten parties in the criminal justice system. Too often victims are excluded from any meaningful participation in the criminal justice process – they typically receive no payment for their losses and have no say in the plea-bargaining. The only role they are given is as witnesses.

For some victims it is a real shock to see the system not working for them. Who is the system for? The justice system seems less concerned about the victim’s losses and emotional pain than with processing the case of the offender. C.S. Lewis comments in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics that in our age criminal law increasingly protects the criminal and ceases to protect his victim. “One might fear that we are moving towards a Dictatorship of the Criminals or (what is perhaps the same thing) mere anarchy.”

Instead of seeking justice for the victim our system focuses only on “rehabilitating the criminal.” So at times murderers are let out on bail and are given extremely light sentences because the judges “feel” the offenders will not repeat their crimes.

Is this justice?

It is clear that we need to change our criminal justice system but as attractive as it might seem, simply calling for tougher sentences isn’t the answer. A far more radical, and far more biblical perspective would involve changing sentencing to allow nonviolent offenders to pay back society.

Human Dignity

Regardless of what kind of crime committed, a criminal deserves the dignity of being held accountable for his actions, and paying his debt to the victim and society. If the wrong they committed can be righted, we shouldn’t deny criminals the responsibility and opportunity to do so.

This may sound strange, but I tell you we do great damage to our society when we allow people to refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Such a denial dehumanizes a person. Ultimately lack of punishment undermines one’s dignity as a moral, responsible human being. To be punished because we have deserved it, because we “ought to have known better,” is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image. We are personally responsible for our actions.

The Biblical view of taking responsibility for one’s actions is often forgotten in our therapeutic society. Despite the rise of crime and violence, many people still believe in the basic goodness of man. Evil acts are not evil. Problems arise from social conditions rather than inherent moral corruption. Blame society! The root cause of crime is unemployment, racism, poverty, or mental illness. Ramsey Clark, Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson, wrote, “Healthy, rational people will not injure others.” Since people are essentially good, social or psychiatric causes are found for their antisocial behavior. The lesson is clear: the fault lies not in ourselves.

But are people naturally good? When we see ourselves in the light of the cross of Christ, we can’t deny our own sinful nature. Criminals, not society, are the cause of crime. Poverty, racism, oppression, and substance abuse cannot be summarily dismissed as contributing factors to crime. Nor can they be tolerated in society. But they do not make people commit crimes. If we have lost the quality of life, it is because we do not obey the Creator’s constitutional order for society. This is not a popular thing to say today. Sin makes us seek ourselves at the expense of our neighbor. The apostle Paul tells us what we can expect in a society like ours. If men are not lovers of God, their society will be made up of lovers of self, lovers of pleasure, lovers of money, and haters of good (2 Tim. 3:1-7). Charles Colson and Daniel Van Ness state in Convicted: New Hope for Ending America’s Crime Crisis, “No matter what its aggravating causes, there is only one teapot of crime. It is not some sociological phenomenon; it is sin. Though men and women have essential dignity and value, we are predisposed toward evil choices.”

Restorative Justice

A Biblical perspective of criminal justice is punishment to fit the crime, not the criminal. One doesn’t punish an offence, a crime, but always a human being. Punishment does something either for good or ill.

A relatively new approach to criminal justice is the restorative justice movement. Charles Colson and his organization, Prison Fellowship, have taken the lead in advocating this approach. Colson wrote a book Justice That Restores in which he argues that attending to the victim’s safety needs and attending to his injuries or damages means that the victim is as important as the offender in the Restorative Justice system. This system includes principles such as promoting the rights of victims in the legal process, giving them a voice in the proceedings, and encouraging offenders to reconcile with their victims. The object of restorative justice is to repair the moral and social order God called us to live in.

Justice is more than handing out a sentence; it is also about caring and serving. It involves compensation for losses, and assisting victims as they attempt to reestablish their sense of personal security. The criminal justice process should leave victims satisfied that their rights have been vindicated, not that they have been ignored or, even worse, made out to be the villains. The wrongdoers are punished and the victims are helped.


Unfortunately restorative justice is often accused of being soft on crime because under this system fewer criminals would be locked up. We do need prisons for dangerous offenders. But I believe a nonviolent offender should be working in community service, paying back those he wronged, learning to contribute as a responsible member of society rather than sitting idly in an expensive prison cell, growing bored and bitter. Performing free service is an excellent way for nonviolent offenders to pay this “debt to society.”

One of the most creative ways of administering justice involves the concept of restitution. God is determined to restore right relationships to all who will accept his restoration (all who believe). Wrong cannot simply be passed over. This Biblical response to crime aims at restoring right relationships between the affected parties. Restitution – paying back the victim – is essential to the process. It has its origin in the Old Testament. God told Moses while elaborating on the Ten Commandments that if a man stole an ox or a sheep, “he shall make restitution for it” (Exodus 22:3). The New Testament tells the story of the corrupt tax collector Zaccheus, who repented of his greed and extortion. He promised to repay fourfold to anyone he had cheated (Luke 19:1-10). His restitution did more than financially compensate his victims. It helped restore the shalom – the peaceful relationship – that had been broken. Zaccheus did not pay a fine to the state for his wrongdoing. He repaid his victims.

What does restitution involve? A first step in the restoration process and healing for both victim and offender is to recognize a wrong was done. Restitution is not meant to minimize the offense nor overlook the safety and needs of the victim. True restitution will recognize the injustice, make agreement to restore the equity as much as possible and plan for an accountable future in which the trespass does not reoccur. On the basis of redemption, criminals are called to repent of their crimes and, as far as possible, to restore what they have damaged. Regardless all the efforts put into implementing the concept of restorative justice, a call for repentance of sin, faith in Christ and conversion are essential. These are the most important factors for change. Offenders need to hear that through His death on the cross, Jesus bore our punishment and brought reconciliation for all who believe in Him. For example, every prisoner in Colson’s Prison Fellowship program has to follow the path of repentance, restoration and public apologies to victims that is described in the gospel story of Zaccheus.

Role of the Church

In Matthew 25 our Lord tells His followers to care for prisoners and to visit them. Christians, who are specifically called to care for the bruised and broken of society, can offer hope to people touched by crime. The most essential element of any real change in the criminal justice system is the hope and transforming power of the Gospel. Churches, therefore, should have active prison ministries to provide for the men and women who show a desire for the message of salvation, the means which alone can totally rehabilitate them. But this ministry also includes caring for offenders, both during and after their incarceration. The families of offenders also need help and encouragement. And emotional and practical support should be available for the victims of crime.

We can make a difference in the crime crisis. Often ordinary people can be used in extraordinary ways. We should be informed on criminal justice issues. We should pray for those touched by crime – victims and offenders – and those who work in the criminal justice system. And when we are involved in prison ministry, we must always remember it is only by the grace of God that we are who we are. We too are prone to sin and wrongdoing.

What is Crime?

If we want to create a better justice system we must first understand what crime is. But how do we define crime? Many Christians mistakenly assume that their country’s legal code is somehow tied to or based on clear moral principles or even divine law. However, the definition of crime in each country is a relative matter that changes with the whims of legislative bodies. Any conduct may be declared criminal or made legal. For example, homosexuality, polygamy, and prostitution are crimes in some nations but not in others.

The definition of crime is also culturally fluid. In Saudi Arabia it is a criminal offence to conduct a Christian worship service. In Truth Decay Douglas Groothuis tells the story of a Laotian Hmong immigrant in his thirties. This man kidnaps a seventeen-year-old woman as part of the accepted marriage-by-capture practice of the Hmongs. Groothuis comments that this forces the postmodernist in a sharp dilemma. The American legal system considers kidnapping a crime and not the equivalent of matrimony. But who is right? Whose law is the right law?

In Canada crime is viewed only as an offense against the state, not as an injury to the victim or community. So our justice system does not require that victims get repaid, or that offenders make things right, or that the community take responsibility for justice done.

The Bible has a different perspective. Crime is primarily an offense against human relationships – a specific person has been hurt, or scammed or defrauded. Crime then is when offenders break the harmony that is to exist between them and their victim, their community, and God. The Biblical response to crime aims to restore right relationships – shalom – between the affected parties. Instead of simply “doing time” the criminal has to take responsibility for his actions, seek reconciliation and make restitution.


* First published in Reformed Perspective, February 2006.

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