Crime and recidivism among young people are global challenges with complex roots. Young people involved in juvenile justice often face poverty, systemic racism, family dysfunction and fragmentation, homelessness, neglect and abuse, community violence, commercial and sexual exploitation, juvenile and criminal justice system involvement of themselves and/or their parents and mental and behavioural health concerns including substance use (Fazal, 2014; Petrilla et al., 2020). Traditional retributive and rehabilitative juvenile justice approaches often fail to address the distinct yet interconnected needs of victims, offenders and communities, with retributive approaches even being linked to increased recidivism rates (Umbreit et al., 2002; Bergseth and Bouffard, 2007; Bouffard et al., 2016). 

Numerous studies support the increasing popularity of restorative justice.

Restorative Justice is a process whereby parties with a stake in a specific offence collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future (Marshall, 1999, p. 5). 

It is grounded in the concept that humanity is interconnected and crime is interpersonal (Maruna, 2016). When one person is harmed, the entire community suffers (Zehr, 1990; Zehr, 2015). Restorative justice increases participants’ satisfaction and decreases the likelihood of recurring offences (Umbreit et al., 2002; Bergseth and Bouffard, 2007; Bouffard et al., 2016; Hansen and Umbreit, 2018). Through restorative justice, there is a rich opportunity for individual and communal healing (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

Restorative justice should reflect and integrate community and cultural competence. Top-down approaches risk betraying its community roots, undermining its responsiveness and even threatening its very survival (Gavrielides, 2016). Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are therefore critical players in ensuring the integrity and success of restorative justice initiatives. 

The United Nations recognises the major role NGOs play in the development and implementation of restorative justice programmes worldwide, primarily because they are closer to communities than those operating from criminal justice systems and oftentimes more trusted than the police, public prosecutors and judges (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2006, pp. 75--76). Less bureaucratically and politically compromised and indoctrinated with fewer external restraints than government institutions, they can champion innovative, client-sensitive interventions while maintaining fidelity to the core healing principles of restorative justice (Petrilla et al., 2020). This article focuses on some key roles NGOs can play in promoting restorative juvenile justice. 

NGO Roles

Champion restorative justice policies and research

Advocacy efforts expand restorative justice initiatives on international, national and local fronts. The European Commission has funded hundreds of NGOs, governmental bodies and charities to research and implement restorative justice, keen on contributing to the development of its evidence base (Gavrielides, 2013). The European Forum for Restorative Justice is an example of a global NGO that raises public awareness, influences policy, and improves the quality of restorative justice practices through research. The Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Alliance also assists the UN ‘in the identification of existing and emerging crime and justice issues’ and supports restorative justice practices.

In the U.S., the American Bar Association and the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice are among many nonprofits advocating for restorative justice-based approaches (Pavelka, 2016). Locally led restorative justice approaches to youth crime and conflict include community and faith-based organisations such as those offering violence prevention and intervention for young people involved in gangs. NGOs are well-positioned to influence change from the bottom-up, informed by the experience of those impacted (Johnson et al., 2015; Petrilla et al., 2020). Through sharing valuable outcome data and evaluations of restorative justice practices with policymakers and by collaborating with like-minded organisations, they can effectively advocate for critical, restorative policy reform (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

Empower self-advocacy

Through mobilising self-advocacy groups, NGOs empower persons in vulnerable situations while pursuing positive change. 

The lessons of restorative justice need not be confined to the realm of the courtroom; NGOs offer another great avenue for revitalising meaningful forms of citizen participation in a democracy (Braithwaite, 2004). 

For example, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP) Center for Policy and Advocacy advocates for systemic juvenile justice reforms that reduce reliance on institutionalisation, engaging young people and their families in a variety of activities such as: 

  • providing legislative testimony, 
  • meeting with legislators, 
  • presenting at conferences, and 
  • organising letter-writing campaigns.

Provide direct programme administration and facilitation services

NGO partnerships carry much of the principal responsibility in the implementation and innovation of restorative justice in most EU member states (Gavrielides, 2016). Even in the U.S. where the courts and government agencies administer many restorative justice initiatives, 43% of Victim Offender Mediation (VOM) programmes are offered by private, nonprofit community-based organisations (Umbreit et al., 2002). ‘Specialised service’ mediators, whose focus is mediation rather than court, parole or social services, are the optimal providers and usually emanate from non-governmental and non-profit organisations (Weitekamp, 2001). Their neutrality, combined with mediation specific experience and expertise, help them navigate the sensitive balance needed in such processes as VOM (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

Prepare and educate participants

Preparation is key to fostering productive exchanges critical to successful restorative justice efforts. It helps assuage victims’ fears and prevent revictimisation, increases communication skills and awareness of language landmines and helps to moderate the expectations of all parties (Umbreit and Greenwood, 1997; Gavrielides, 2007). Careful preparation has been identified as important to the success of victim-offender mediation programmes (Umbreit and Greenwood, 1997; Wellikoff, 2004). This helps create an atmosphere more conducive to genuine sharing and the cultivation of empathy and forgiveness (Gavrielides, 2007; Petrilla et al., 2020). 

NGOs also serve numerous education roles. Many restorative justice programmes rely on volunteers to serve as facilitators and other roles (Souza and Dhami, 2008). NGOs can offer volunteers culturally sensitive, skills-based training (Petrilla et al., 2020). They can use their community connections to educate the public. Public education, including media relations sensitive to the confidentiality of involved parties, is a challenging balancing act in promoting restorative justice initiatives (Gavrielides, 2007). NGOs can promote programmes while ensuring, when possible, the confidentiality of the parties involved. Confidentiality is compatible with the healing nature of restorative justice and particularly important for young offenders (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

Support and mentor meaningful youth participation

Though victim support persons are typical for most restorative justice programmes (Office of Justice Programs), some programmes also allow for support persons in addition to parents/guardians for juvenile offenders (Bradshaw and Roseborough, 2005). These individuals differ from legal counsel, primarily encouraging, engaging and empowering the young offender. They help address power imbalance concerns particularly apparent in conference models facilitated by police or probation officers (Petrilla et al., 2020). These individuals should be culturally competent, improving their efforts to bridge programme-related comprehension and communication gaps.

NGO mentors can also play critical roles in preparing young offenders to better understand and participate in the process (Petrilla et al., 2020). Young people exhibiting high-risk behaviours often lack skills necessary for successful adulthood transition including working with others, understanding themselves, communicating and making decisions (Boyd et al., 1992; Modecki et al., 2017; Petrilla et al., 2020). The mentor aids in the development of these skills while avoiding interjecting his or her values. Good preparation focuses on helping young people to elucidate their feelings, clarify their purposes, and cultivate the skills needed to pursue their own goals (Marshall and Merry, 1990; Gavrielides, 2007). 

The value of mentoring extends beyond the young person’s preparation for and engagement in the restorative justice processes. Mentoring is founded on the universal premise that all children need caring adults in their lives (Jekielek et al., 2002, p. 1). Mentoring is identified by Johnson et al. (2015) as an important component of a model restorative justice community collaboration. It nurtures life skills and self-advocacy that empower and sustain young people moving forward (Petrilla et al., 2020; Silva et al., 2020). 

Provide culturally competent wraparound supports

The philosophical underpinning of family engagement in the restorative conferencing process is consistent with various theories NGOs use to serve vulnerable young people. There are constructive overlaps between rehabilitation and restorative justice. Rehabilitation within restorative justice is relational, extending beyond the individual. It requires the capacity and experiences of an extended community network to effectuate the bonding needed for sustainable change (Bazemore, 1998; Petrilla et al., 2020). This concept aligns with a high-fidelity wraparound approach geared at cultivating critical formal and informal community supports to sustain positive youth development (Petrilla et al., 2020; Silva et al., 2020). 

Wraparound is a philosophy of care that includes a definable planning process involving the child and family and results in a unique set of community services and natural supports that are individualised for the child and family to achieve a positive set of outcomes (Burns et al., 2000, pp. 294--295).

A 2016 randomised pilot study of wraparound services for first time juvenile offenders found statistically significant improvements for young people receiving wraparound services (McCarter, 2016). In both wraparound and restorative justice, community plays a critical role in the healing process (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

Create and monitor restitution opportunities 

Most VOMs result in agreements (Umbreit et al., 2002). These agreements are often considered secondary to the dialogue exchange in addressing victims’ healing needs, developing victim empathy in the offender and reducing the chances of offence recurrence. Still, they serve an important role for participants in repairing harm and ensuring offender accountability — core concerns of the juvenile justice system (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

VOM and other restorative justice agreements often share common components such as apologies, restitution and community service (McCold, 2001, p. 45). The young offender may repair the harm imposed or service may be geared to address other victim-specific needs. Restitution should be monitored throughout implementation and reporting phases. Non-governmental, community-based organisations have the expertise, experience, cultural competence and connections to provide these critically needed supports for young people to honour their reparation commitments (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

Community service is another restitution option. Though its restorative nature is debated, appropriately and collaboratively crafted it can play an important role in a restorative justice approach (Karp and Conrad, 2005; Petrilla et al., 2020; Zehr, 2015). As community collaborators, NGOs can coordinate meaningful community service opportunities, identify potential roadblocks to implementation and empower young people to overcome them. Young offenders should be mentored and monitored throughout their give-back experience to ensure accountability, optimise teachable moments and address safety concerns. Successful restitution completion builds young people’s confidence while helping to heal the victim and community (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

Through any of the restorative justice processes, agreements may include training for young offenders, including instruction in communication skill-building, anti-bullying, anti-theft and anger-management. NGOs are often leaders in the community in developing culturally competent educational initiatives. In New Jersey, the nonprofit YAP provides Juvenile Conference Committees with remedial workshops for young people in response to a range of common juvenile charges. The trainers are recruited from impacted areas and are sensitive to the challenges and strengths of offending young people and their communities (Petrilla et al., 2020).

Trigger innovation

NGOs are typically less politically and bureaucratically restricted than governmental entities, uniquely positioning them to champion evolutionary thinking. They are in the trenches with young people and families and can identify emerging crises and restorative responses. Integration of re-entry circles among transitioning juvenile populations exemplifies just one potential NGO supported innovative application of restorative justice (Petrilla et al., 2020). 

NGOs can model innovation through integrating restorative justice principles and practices within their organisations. Goodstein and Aquino advance the need to more fully research and explore workplace opportunities where ‘making amends, forgiveness and reintegration’ can play critical roles in the restoration of relationships in employee disputes (2010, p. 625). NGOs can also encourage employees’ civic responsibility to volunteer and donate to restorative causes and consider integrating restorative justice principles and practices in problem-solving their own internal client disputes (Petrilla et al., 2020). 


NGOs have the grassroot connections, cultural competence, expertise, legitimacy, and passion to bring the community full circle in the restorative healing process, particularly in working with young people and families facing complex needs and challenges.

Caroline M. Petrilla is an Adjunct Professor at  the Rutgers Law School, New Jersey, United States of America.

The views presented in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the EFRJ.


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