• What is retributive justice?

  • What is restorative justice?

  • What is a reinvestment approach to justice? 

  • What are some successes and limitations of all three approaches to justice? 

We will explore these questions through a discussion, reading and case study on dealing with violence.

  • Warm Up​

  • Reading and Study Guide

  • Video: Restorative Justice: Why do we need it?

  • Compare and Contrast

  • Should Prisons Offer Incarcerated People Educational Opportunities?


Source A




Over 40 years ago, the U.S. embarked on an unprecedented experiment in punishment. The criminal justice system is based on a method of retributive justice that asks, “What law was broken? Who broke it? What punishment is warranted?”  The result has been mass incarceration, high rates of recidivism and little victim satisfaction, all to the cost of over 180 billion dollars a year.


Today, the U.S holds over 2 million people, disproportionately people of color, behind bars;  the equivalent of 582 people per 100,000 residents. Mass incarceration began partly in reaction to a spike in crime, but expanded even after crime began to decline. Other Western countries also saw crime increase, but chose to respond in a less retributive manner. Today, the median rate of incarceration for European countries is 84 per 100,000 residents and rates of violence and homicide are much lower than in the U.S.


While the “tough on crime” rhetoric may have helped politicians get elected, studies have been unable to establish a strong correlation between incarceration and crime rates. A growing body of evidence shows that at best, mass incarceration played only a modest role in reducing crime. Today, crime rates in the U.S. are at a historic low but increased incarceration has little to no effect on crime. Between 75 to 100% of the reduction in crime can be attributed to factors other than incarceration. Possible theories that explain the reduction in crime include: the liberalization of abortion laws, decreased lead poisoning, an aging population, an improving economy, an increase in immigration, declines in alcohol consumption, social control technologies and the role of social programs and community-based organizations, according to sociologist Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.

Mass incarceration has  “created a culture of despair and hopelessness that actually feeds violence and criminality,” writes Bryan Stevenson in his seminal work Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. According to Stevenson


           There is a segment of the population in the United States—mostly poor, and people of               color—who have been living on the margins of our society for too long. This segment of              our population that has been so criminalized and demonized from the time they were                  very infant children that sometimes they lose hope. In my work, I talk to far too many                  13-year-olds who think they’ll either be dead or behind bars by the time they turn 21.                    They grow up with an expectation of incarceration, because they see it happening all                    too often to their neighbors, friends, and family members. And when people begin to                  live with the sense that there’s no opportunity or chance for success, they sometimes                      express themselves in less productive ways.


Several studies have even shown that incarceration itself is a risk factor for crime and violence, and that the more time a person spends in prison, the greater their chances of reoffending. A 2018 update on prisoner recidivism, which tracked close to a half a million released prisoners in 30 states between  2005 and 2014, found that 68% of released state prisoners were arrested within three years, 79% within six years and 83% (five out of six) within nine years.



Source B




There are other approaches to justice that go beyond punishment to focus on healing, repair and prevention, that seek to address the root causes of crime and violence. These methods find strong support among those who have experienced crime. A national survey found that 69% of survivors of violent crimes said they supported holding people accountable through options other than prison, including rehabilitation, drug and mental health treatment and community supervision.


Restorative justice aims at less punishment and more accountability. It asks: “Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of all affected? How do all affected parties together address needs and repair harm?” Restorative justice processes take many forms including conflict mediation, problem-solving circles, peer juries and community service and deliver powerful results both within the U.S. criminal justice system and as alternatives to incarceration. By bringing together people who have committed harm with those affected by their actions, restorative justice gives survivors a central voice in the process and enables those who are responsible to acknowledge the impact of their actions and do their best to repair the damage. These programs do what prisons typically fail to do: They hold people accountable in a meaningful way.


Restorative justice has been successful in reducing recidivism. Its use in school settings has led to reductions in suspensions and expulsions, and has kept youth out of the school to prison pipeline. In New York City, the Common Justice program has also seen the effectiveness of restorative justice when working young people accused of violent offenses. Thus far, fewer than 7% of participants have been terminated from the program for committing new crimes. Crime survivors also report satisfaction with restorative justice approaches, which have been shown to deliver a greater sense of justice and safety, and reduce posttraumatic stress symptoms. Ninety percent of crime survivors who participated in restorative justice stated that they were more pleased with the process than with standard court proceedings.


A justice reinvestment approach is one that advocates for taking the billions of dollars spent on incarceration and reinvesting it in root cause solutions to crime and violence such as education, community centers, mental health and addiction treatment, employment training, housing and other programs. Investments in people, communities and in the incarcerated have been the most effective when it comes to reducing crime and recidivism rates. Prisoners who take part in postsecondary education and training programs are 43% less likely to return to prison, according to one study. Another study conducted in NYC found that youth on probation who took part in a community mentorship program had a 69% lower recidivism rate within a year of starting the program than youth who did not participate. In a city with 100,000 people, every organization formed to confront violence and build stronger neighborhoods led to about a 1% drop in violent crime and murder, found another study.


Compare and Contrast

Sources A and B on their approaches to justice.


- Identify and explain 1 similarity

- Identify and explain 3 differences. (Think about their aims, methods and successes/limitations.)


Restorative Justice: Why do we need it?

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