The idea of responding to crime by making good on it by direct participation of those involved, is not new. Every society is continuously looking for better ways on how to deal with incidents and harmful behaviour amongst its members, without imposing additional harm or polarising people. It is a permanent quest by communities to learn coping with crime and injustices in a peaceful and rightful way, and to balance the needs for justice and redress towards all parties. This is indeed the idea of ‘doing justice’, not by exercising revenge or retaliation or inflicting more pain, but by involving all stakeholders – victims, offenders, their families, community members, and professional actors and institutions – in a process of dialogue where the incident and the harm caused can be discussed and its consequences fully understood. It is through carefully crafted spaces in ‘mediation’, ‘conferencing’ or ‘circles’, that such dialogue can take place in a safe way and that solutions can be agreed on to repair the harm in its material, relational and social dimensions. This is, in a nutshell, the idea of ‘restorative justice’.
This old and self-evident idea of restorative justice has again appeared in the foreground during last decades. Our criminal justice systems, through their strong focus on bureaucratic and retribution oriented justice processes, have moved away from the idea and ability of reacting to crime through participation and reparation as its first goals. Towards the end of the 20th century, criminal justice systems were fundamentally criticised because of their lack of attention for victims and their limited potential to make offenders act in a responsible way. Criminal justice systems in most of our countries became self-confirming mechanisms without real connection to the life-world of people and without effective means to control crime in society. As an answer, restorative justice aims at improving our justice systems by its inclusionary and participatory approach, in particular by re-valorising the role victims and offenders can play with the help of their communities and institutions.
At the beginning of the 21st century, restorative justice has become a worldwide movement. In some regions, initial developments have been inspired by cultures and practices of aboriginal communities. Often practitioners and academics in the field of criminal justice played a pioneer role, driven by professional experiences or theoretical insights. Because of this diversity, restorative justice appears in different forms and has adopted a variation in its definitions. However, at its core, restorative justice practices share the same fundamental values and principles.