Restorative Justice Works!

 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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June 2002

As a peacemaker, I have a basic question for you to consider about criminal justice.  Why are we, as taxpayers paying so much for prisons, criminal courts, district attorneys, and public defenders?  Are we really receiving any benefit from this huge expenditure of tax dollars?  Can we justify imprisoning people at a cost per year that equals the cost of paying for a freshman year at Harvard College?

Personally, I think not.  We are spending more on criminal justice than we are on education, including primary, middle school, high school, college, and graduate school.   Does this make economic sense?  As a taxpayer and business person, I have to say “No!”

What is most amazing is that an alternative exists to the current, failing system.  The possibility is exciting in terms of cost effectiveness and public safety. So what might be this be?

In California, as with other states, victim-offender reconciliation or mediation has proven to be more effective that incarceration.  In this process, the criminal offender and the victim are invited into a safe, secure process to do three things: exchange their perspectives on the offense and how they experienced it; discuss how to make things right between them; and talk about future intentions—what assurances can be given that the offender will not re-offend?

This process has been used successfully in both juvenile and adult criminal cases.  The California Judicial Council, the agency that governs the California court system, commissioned an independent study of victim-offender mediation programs in six California counties.  The Judicial Council compared the efficacy of victim-offender programs to traditional retributive justice processes.  The study therefore contrasted juvenile cases referred to victim-offender programs to juvenile cases going through the traditional process.  The results were startling. In every measurable category of performance, victim offender programs out-performed traditional retributive justice cases.

The conclusions of the Judicial Council were:

•    Victim-offender reconciliation programs (VORP) met or exceeded the benchmark standards of performance established by the California legislature.

•    Victims participating in VORP collected between 158 percent and 1000 percent more in restitution than non-VORP comparison victims.

•    Offender recidivism in VORP cases ranged from 21 percent to 105 percent lower than non-VORP comparison offenders.

•    Of VORP cases mediated, agreements were reached in almost all cases.

•    Complete performance of agreements by offenders ranged from 70 percent to 93 percent.

•    Satisfaction of victims and offenders uniformly ran above 90 percent.

•    Parents, mediators, probation officers, and judges gave VORP high marks.

•    Considerably more VORP offenders performed community service than non-VORP comparison offenders.

By any reasonable measure of performance, victim-offender programs exceeded the traditional retributive justice system.

Victim-offender mediation is also cost effective.  The average juvenile case in the traditional system averages around $2,300, while the average victim offender case is less than $800 per case.  Taking into account the reduced re-offending, the satisfaction of the parties, and the likelihood of performing agreements, victim-offender programs are far more effective economically than cases processes through the retributive justice system.

So why isn’t this program more widespread?  The political dynamics are complex.  First, politicians find easy fodder in being “tough on crime.”  My argument is “If being tough on crime is so great, how come we are building so many new prisons?”  If being tough means locking people up, then one would think that crime diminish as prisons are built.  It seems the opposite is true.

Second, there is the problem of the prison-politico-industrial complex.  Unions, private prison corporations, construction companies, and pork barrels for legislative districts all combine to perpetuate the failure of the status quo.

Third, there is fear.  Local district attorneys do not want victims to be re-victimized nor do they wish to appear soft on crime.  They fear public backlash at mediations that fail.

Finally, loss of power is an issue.  Law enforcement, the prosecutor, and the politicians disdain victim offender mediation because it places power back into the community.  My view is that the community should reassert this power because of the failure of traditional criminal justice institutions.  Nevertheless, relinquishing power is a difficult proposition for the government.

In summary, we as taxpayers must face the question of how long we will finance a failing criminal justice system.  Those of us who are business and political leaders should question the status quo, especially when cost-effective alternatives exist.  If enough people agitate for cost-effective, beneficial programs that replace the traditional system, systemic change might be possible.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2002, Douglas E. Noll