Provide restorative justice opportunities for victims, survivors, and people serving long sentences
Restorative justice does not view the primary harm of crime as a violation of state or federal law, but rather as an injury to people and communities.1 Criminal justice programs that use a restorative justice framework are dedicated to engaging people who are directly affected by crime and helping them heal.2 A key tenet of these programs is that they depend on the voluntary participation of both victims and survivors of crime and the people who harmed them. Program activities focus on helping victims and survivors obtain a sense of accountability from the person who hurt them and helping people who have caused harm to take responsibility for their actions.3
While most restorative justice programs focus on low-level and non-violent crimes, particularly crimes committed by young people, a small and growing number of prisons have implemented these programs for incarcerated adults, including people serving long sentences.4 More than a dozen state departments of corrections have implemented Apology Banks, a program that helps incarcerated people write letters of apology to their victims and survivors for the harm they have caused and then provides victims and survivors the option to choose to receive that letter.5 Apology Banks are sometimes paired with Victim and Offender Dialogues. This is a highly-structured program in which mediators create an opportunity for victims and survivors to explain how they (and their loved ones) were harmed by the crime and the person who perpetrated that crime. Like all restorative justice programs, Victim and Offender Dialogues ultimately seek to facilitate voluntary participation, reconciliation, and forgiveness.6
Evaluations of restorative justice programs indicate that they improve outcomes for both victims and offending individuals.7 A 2013 Campbell Collaborative review found that when compared to victims randomly assigned to standard criminal justice processes, victims assigned to participate in face-to-face “restorative justice conferences” expressed higher levels of satisfaction with the handling of their cases, were more likely to receive an apology from offenders and rate that apology as sincere, were less inclined to seek revenge, and experienced fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms.8
The Task Force on Long Sentences convened nine listening sessions to gather input from victims and survivors of crime as well as close relatives of people serving long sentences and individuals who served long prison sentences themselves. While they were designed to address victims and survivors as separate from formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, many people had intersecting experiences of the two categories. There was broad agreement on many of the topics explored, including around the purposes of sentencing, what accountability means, and reconsiderations of sentence length.
As affirmed in its guiding principles, the Task Force believes the nation’s use of long sentences should “help all victims and survivors of crime heal and recover from the impact of violence and trauma” and “allow for the possibility of redemption” among people who caused harm through their criminal offending. Consistent with these principles, the Task Force believes that the nation’s prisons should provide programs that create opportunities for victims and survivors to directly engage with the people who harmed them, facilitating accountability and healing.
Sentencing courts, state corrections agencies, and the federal Bureau of Prisons should support restorative justice programs that promote healing and accountability for victims, survivors, and people serving long sentences.
Courts should make victims and survivors who are involved in long sentences cases aware of any restorative justice programs that are available to them at sentencing.
State corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons should partner with restorative justice experts to pilot evidence-based restorative justice programs for victims and survivors and people serving long sentences in jurisdictions where they are not currently offered.
State corrections agencies that administer restorative justice programs should consider expanding them based on the interests and needs of victims and survivor and incarcerated people.
State and federal authorities should support data collection and evaluation of prison-based restorative justice and related programs, examining how services have impacted the following:
- Victims’ and survivors’ sense of justice, healing, safety, trust, legitimacy, and change in post-traumatic stress symptoms
- Sense of accountability, healing, trust, and legitimacy for people serving long sentences
- Recidivism, desistance, and institutional behavior of people serving long sentences
- Criminal justice professionals’ perceptions of restorative justice programs, including program effectiveness, strengths, and weaknesses and how these programs have affected their work with people serving long sentences
- Race, gender, and other demographic factors of participants