Does Restorative Justice Have a Realistic Place in Today’s Criminal Justice System?

The question of how to respond to criminality in the United States is changing in fascinating ways. U.S. residents and leaders realize that the era of “tough on crime”—a widely appealing catchphrase—generated disproportionate incarceration and, with it, negative fiscal and social repercussions. The state of California has budgeted more than $10 billion for corrections in 2015–2016 alone. This figure has steadily risen even after a three-panel court ordered and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a mandatory reduction in California’s prison population to 137.5 percent capacity as a part of a public safety realignment by February 2016.1 This and additional prisoner-reduction measures have caused major changes across the state. California has implemented Proposition 36 and Proposition 47, which amended the state’s three strikes policy and reclassified certain felonies as misdemeanors; other measures have increased opportunities to earn credits-for-time-served, expanded parole, and created reentry programs. The social effects of mass incarceration have manifested in what criminal justice policy professor Dr. Bruce Western calls “invisible,” “cumulative,” and “intergenerational” ways.2 The result is a population of people who are essentially excluded from U.S. society and who view the police with deep suspicion. Efforts to reduce California’s incarcerated population have shifted greater responsibility to localities. This creates important challenges, but also opportunities to reexamine what might be called civic criminal justice reform. Restorative justice may play a role here. It is not a panacea, but restorative justice champions ideas which are inherent to civil society—honesty, accountability, and community engagement. Also, it provides an important role for victims, and costs next to nothing compared to jail and most rehabilitative programs.