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What to Consider When Evaluating Restorative Justice Programs for Youth

What to Consider When Evaluating Restorative Justice Programs for Youth

Youth justice may be one of the most challenging and complex areas of the social service arena, for a number of reasons. Youth who run afoul of the criminal justice system often face challenges in a number of areas, which may include poverty, homelessness, drug use, violence, and education, to name a few.

However, the concept of restorative justice, which has only gained widespread attention in the past decade, seeks to address youth justice in a more holistic way. Restorative justice aims to shift the conversation away from how a punitive legal system can enact retribution on an offender and instead looks to help the offender make reparations to their community, usually through justice mediation, counseling, or even reparations. This often results in more community-based support for the delinquent, stronger relationships within the community, and a deeper sense of remorse.

While restorative justice certainly also affects quantifiable things like recidivism rates, measuring its success is not as straightforward as it might sound. Continue reading to find out what to consider when evaluating restorative justice programs.

What is Restorative Justice?

Before we can tell you how to evaluate it, let’s take a step back and talk about what restorative justice, sometimes known as reparative justice, even means. As defined by John Braithwaite, it is “…a process where all stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by the injustice and to decide what should be done to repair the harm. With crime, restorative justice is about the idea that because crime hurts, justice should heal.”

In other words, restorative justice seeks to repair connections between the individual committing the offense and the individuals or communities that were harmed. While this can play out in various ways, organizations like Youth Zone, take the simplest approach to restorative justice; providing youth offenders with the opportunity to apologize to those whom they have harmed.

Evaluating Restorative Justice Programs for Youth

Managing outcomes around restorative justice is certainly not easy. In the social service world, there is some debate as to whether the same metrics that are generally used around service delivery can be applied in this field. Since restorative justice was originally designed to help communities heal, conceptually it is supposed to exist outside of modern criminal justice frameworks, which is where we normally expect to see delinquency prevention services and other juvenile support alternatives at work. However, it is still possible to measure these kinds of programs while still taking into account the qualitative aspects of these programs. So without further ado, here’s what to consider when evaluating restorative justice programs for youth.

  1. Who are you hoping to effect? There are a lot of stakeholders in any youth justice work, and it’s important to get clear on who your organization truly wants to help. Because restorative justice programs tend to focus on repairing connections between the offender and their community, it’s important to consider and look for benefits to communities, rather than purely focusing on recidivism rates.

  2. What kind of change do you want to create? In reparative justice, the goal is larger than helping individuals stay out of prison. The OJJDP lists 3 different restorative justice models on its website, the outcomes of which range from breaking the cycle of offending at an early age to allowing offenders to reintegrate into their communities by creating shame followed by reconciliation to compensating victims for crimes via reparations. Yes, reducing crime is important, but thinking through the potential outcomes of a restorative justice program can involve so much more.

  3. How are you going to appeal to funders? While the aims of restorative justice are noble, it is important to keep in mind that in order to acquire funding, evidence-based approaches are still going to be important and a careful evaluation plan with a focus on outcomes can make the difference in whether your program is able to receive the funding it needs. Measuring things like cost, recidivism rates, time to recidivism, and even decreases in particular kinds of crime can prove highly worthwhile when attempting to acquire funders.

While restorative justice programs for youth can look very different, they all share the common goal of treating offenders as people and working to repair bonds between them and the victims and communities rather than othering the individuals. For youth, many of whom are first time offenders, this kind of holistic view can substantially affect long term outcomes. But in order to continue funding these programs and making positive change in the world, it’s important to remember to stay focused on evidence-based practices. If you keep these things in mind when evaluating restorative justice programs for youth, it is possible that you will have viable funding streams and continue to generate positive outcomes for many years to come.