What is restorative justice? 

Restorative justice is a philosophy that understands crime and harm as violations of people and relationships. The criminal justice system focuses on what law was broken, who is guilty, and how they should be punished. Restorative justice is concerned about who was impacted, what their needs are, and how to move forward in a good way with one another. Restorative justice is rooted in values of human dignity, right-relationship, healing, accountability, and encounter.

What are restorative practices? 

Restorative practices are formal or informal processes that allow those most directly impacted by a crime (harmed persons, responsible persons, and community members) to determine ways to repair the harm that was done. Strongly influenced by indigenous ways of life, restorative practices such as victim-offender dialogue, community conferencing, and circle process offer practical approaches to building a culture of encounter and accompaniment in the criminal justice system, as well as parish, family, and civic life. These practices are helpful community-building tools, which can be used even when no direct harm is evident.

What does the Catholic Church say about restorative justice? 

In 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in their pastoral letter Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice that “a Catholic approach leads us to encourage models of restorative justice that seek to address crime in terms of the harm done to victims and communities, not simply as a violation of law.” While the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not name “restorative justice” specifically, all seven themes of Catholic Social Tradition are consistent with the principles of restorative justice.


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Catholic Social Teaching and Restorative Justice

Learn how the seven major themes of Catholic Social Teaching (Dignity of the Human Person; Call to Family, Community, and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; Preferential Option for and with People who are Poor; Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; Solidarity; Care for God's Creation) are present in the principles and practices of restorative justice.

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Is restorative justice an alternative to criminal justice processes? 

The applications of restorative justice depend on the circumstances. In some states, restorative practices are used in cases of juvenile or low-level crimes as a diversion from prison that combats mass incarceration. Other times, a dialogue may take place long after a crime has happened and have no impact on the sentencing whatsoever. 

So restorative justice isn’t based on punishment, isn’t that “soft on crime?"

The traditional criminal legal system equates accountability with punishment and isolation. Restorative justice, on the other hand, understands accountability as taking responsibility for what happened and taking steps to make it right or “making amends.” Many individuals who have committed crimes say that hearing the stories of those they harmed, looking them in the eye, and taking responsibility for their actions, was more difficult than any prison sentence served. 

Wouldn’t having a conversation with the person who has harmed you be retraumatizing? 

An important aspect of restorative justice is that it should always be voluntary. A harmed person should never be forced into dialogue with the person(s) who has harmed them. In cases where speaking face-to-face is possible and desired, a trained facilitator guides the process of preparation and dialogue in a way that minimizes the chance of further harm happening. When a direct meeting is not possible or safe, sometimes alternative processes can take place, such as meeting with someone of a similar crime or letter writing. 


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Get the Restorative Justice Faith Formation Guide

Harm, Healing, and Human Dignity is a faith formation resource to help parishes, small groups, and individual believers reflect on the Catholic call to restorative justice. Through Scripture, Catholic teaching, eye-opening statistics, and personal stories, each chapter prompts prayerful consideration of the place of human dignity and the common good as we respond to harm, violence, and the death penalty in the United States.

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What might restorative practices look like in Catholic ministry and advocacy? 

Circle process is increasingly used in criminal justice ministry for crime victim support, as well as in-prison and re-entry programming. They are also highly effective for community building, shared decision making, prayer or reflection, and responding to incidents of harm in parishes, schools, and other Catholic institutions. Some communities are integrating restorative justice principles and practices in response to clergy sexual abuse and holding difficult conversations about racial injustice. 

When I hear about restorative justice, I often think of forgiveness and reconciliation. How do they relate to one another?  

As Christians, forgiveness and reconciliation are central tenets of our faith that have different meanings for different people and communities. Restorative practices can play an important role in the journey of forgiveness and reconciliation. However, they are not a mandatory element of a restorative process, and can manifest in a variety of ways.

I can see how this applies in cases of crime, but what is the value of restorative justice for communities and families? 

Restorative justice recognizes that we are all interconnected as one human family. Therefore, when harm happens, we are all accountable to one another. When communities and families are connected and resilient, harm is less likely to happen. Then, when harm does occur, there are structures in place to attend to the needs of those impacted. In this way, restorative justice is not only reactive, but also preventative.