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Restorative Practice

Restorative justice, objectives, attributes, restorative practice continuum, victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, research overview, application in schools, families & workplaces, social work practice.

Three sections follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Information


Restorative practice evolved from restorative justice, a process first developed and applied in the criminal justice field in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Restorative justice was an attempt to rethink the response to crime and wrongdoing—to break the punishment cycle for crime by seeking to repair relationships rather than assign blame for crime and impose an associated sanction. Over time restorative practice has expanded from responding to a one-off incident to a general response to people who cause harm to others. Restorative practice is now used as a way of addressing internal complaints and offences in the criminal justice system, schools, children’s services, workplaces, hospitals, and communities in general (Hopkins, 2015).

Restorative practice programs have the potential to break the ‘punishment cycle’ for misbehaviour. This cycle begins when the community are convinced that crime is exceptionally high, and the proposed solution is to introduce harsh punishments for offenders. Over time this system becomes unmanageable because it is expensive (in time and money) and does not effectively address the misbehaviour problem. Therefore reforms are enacted to provide non-punitive alternatives.But, after some time if misbehaviour rates start to increase, these non-punitive measures are blamed, and harsher treatments are reimposed.The cycle begins again.Restorative practice has the potential to break this punitive-permissive continuum because it offers high support (encouragement and nurture) and high control (limit-setting and discipline) to the perpetrators of misbehaviour and their victims.Restorative practice works WITH people.In contrast, the punitive approach is low in support and high in control (TO people), while the permissive approach is high in support but low in control (FOR people).The different approaches to social discipline policy can be represented by the social discipline window.The use of restorative practice programs can be found in the collaborative, problem solving approaches used by families, communities, organisations and international relations (Wachtel & McCold (2001).[Wachtel and McCold provide a detailed description of each pane in this window—the origins, where it is used and the thinking behind the pane.]


Restorative practice is based on the belief that parties to a conflict ought to be actively involved in resolving it and mitigating its negative consequences. Restorative practice includes approaches to misbehaviour that, in its various forms, involves the victim, the offender, their social networks, organisations and the community. Any efforts to address the consequences of offending behaviour should, where possible, involve the offender as well as the injured parties, while also providing help and support that the victim and offender require. Restorative practice can be adapted to various structural contexts and the needs of different communities. Through them, the victim, the offender and the community regain some control over the process (UNODC, 2006).

Restorative justice and restorative practice are related and overlapping approaches to dealing with social harm and promoting well-being. Both use facilitated, structured processes to help a group of people address social harm and reset relations.The foundational principles of a restorative approach are to:

  • cause no further harm;

  • work with those involved; and

  • set relations right.

The term ‘restorative justice’ is best reserved to describe applications of these principles in the justice system (AARI, 2020).


Restorative practice approaches aim to:

  • Restore community order and peace and repair damaged relationships

  • Denounce offending behaviour as unacceptable and reaffirm community values

  • Support victims, give them a voice, enable their participation and address their needs

  • Encourage all concerned parties to take responsibility, particularly the offenders

  • Identify restorative, forward-looking outcomes

  • Prevent reoffending by encouraging change in individual offenders and facilitating their reintegration into the community (UNODC, 2006).

Features of Restorative Practice

  • A flexible response to the circumstances of the behaviour, the offender and the victim, one that allows each case to be considered individually;

  • A response to offending that respects the dignity and equality of each person, builds understanding and promotes social harmony through the healing of victims, offenders and communities;

  • A viable alternative in many cases to the formal, often automatic, punitive approaches and their stigmatizing effects on offenders;

  • An approach that can be used in conjunction with traditional sanctions;

  • An approach that incorporates problem solving and addressing the underlying causes of conflict;

  • An approach that addresses the harms and needs of victims;

  • An approach which encourages an offender to gain insight into the causes and effects of his or her behaviour and take responsibility in a meaningful way;

  • An approach that is suitable for dealing with many different kinds of offences and offenders, including serious offences;

  • A response to crime which is particularly suitable for situations where juvenile offenders are involved and in which an important objective of the intervention is to teach the offenders some new values and skills;

  • A response that recognizes the role of the community as a prime site of preventing and responding to crime and social disorder (UNODC, 2006).

Critical Ingredients

There are at least four critical ingredients for a fully restorative process to achieve its objectives:

a) an identifiable victim;

b) voluntary participation by the victim;

c) an offender who accepts responsibility for his/her criminal behaviour; and,

d) non-coerced participation of the offender.

The goal is to create a non-adversarial, non-threatening environment in which the interests and needs of the victim, the offender, the community and society can be addressed (UNODC, 2006).

Process goals include the following (UNODC, 2006):

  • Victims who agree to be involved in the process can do so safely and come out of it satisfied;

  • Offenders understand how their action has affected the victim and other people, assume responsibility for the consequences of their action and commit to making reparation;

  • Flexible measures are agreed upon by the parties which emphasize repairing the harm done and, wherever possible, also address the reasons for the offence;

  • Offenders live up to their commitment to repair the harm done and attempt to address the factors that led to their behaviour; and,

  • The victim and the offender both understand the dynamic that led to the specific incident, gain a sense of closure and are reintegrated into the community.

Common attributes of restorative practice programs

Victims are provided with an opportunity to:

  • Be directly involved in resolving the situation and addressing the consequences of the offence

  • Receive answers to their questions about the offence and the offender

  • Express themselves about the impact of the offence

  • Receive restitution or reparation

  • Receive an apology

  • Restore, when appropriate, a relationship with the offender

  • Reach closure.

Offenders are provided with an opportunity to:

  • Acknowledge responsibility for the offence and understand the effects of the offence on the victim

  • Express emotions (even remorse) about the offence

  • Receive support to repair harm caused to the victim or oneself and family

  • Make amends or restitution/reparation

  • Apologize to victims

  • Restore their relationship with the victim, when appropriate

  • Reach closure (UNODC, 2006).

Restorative practice continuum

The term ‘restorative practice’ includes any response to wrong-doing that falls within the parameters defined by the social discipline window above as both supportive and limit-setting. Restorative practice exists on a continuum where programs become increasingly formal, involve more people, more planning, more time, are more complete in dealing with the offence, more structured and may have more impact on the offender (Wachtel & McCold, 2001).

Julich and Cox (2013) explain this continuum in more detail.

  • At the informal end of the continuum, affective statements and responses communicate feelings and encourage people to reflect on how their behaviour impacts on others. This could be as simple as the person harmed telling the wrongdoer how he or she feels about the behaviour. It could be a teacher asking an offending student “What were you thinking?” or the person harmed “How did that make you feel?”

  • At the centre of the continuum are small impromptu restorative processes, such as opportunistic conferences sometimes referred to as ‘corridor conferencing’.

  • Moving to the more formal end of the continuum, restorative responses become more structured and involve more people, planning, time and therefore more organisational resources.

Considering restorative practice as existing along a continuum expands the possible environments in which it can be used: by the criminal justice system, by parents, by organisations seeking to address a workplace issue, by schools across in pastoral care/discipline. Examples include:

  • Incidents disrupting the workplace

  • A son or daughter who has just commenced work and is poor in punctuality

  • A parent who sees his little boy tear wallpaper from a wall

  • Settling a dispute between neighbours about a barking dog

  • Talking with two runaways about their impact on families

  • Dealing with fights and disputes in school

  • Dealing with persistent truancy

  • As an alternative to appearance in court (Wachtel & McCold, 2001)

Six simple principles of practice emerge from the above.

  1. Foster awareness of how others have been affected (ask simple questions, express one’s own feelings, support others to express their feelings).

  2. Avoid scolding or lecturing (scolding invokes the defensive response of a victim; exposure to others’ feelings invokes empathy).

  3. Involve offenders actively (don’t impose a punishment; invite offenders to speak and assist them to repair the harm).

  4. Accept ambiguity (fault is often unclear; to move forward, one may have to acknowledge this).

  5. Separate the deed from the doer (recognise the offender’s intrinsic worth—virtues and accomplishments; disapprove only of the wrong-doing).

  6. See every instance of wrong-doing and conflict as an opportunity for learning (turn negative incidents into constructive events by building empathy and a sense of community) (Wachtel & McCold, 2001).

Formal restorative practice programs

Common ‘formal’ restorative practice processes that occur on the right of the continuum include victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, peacemaking circles and community reparation.

Victim-Offender Mediation (VOM) is generally used with victims and offenders in the criminal justice system although it has the potential to be used in most formal restorative practice settings. VOM is a face-to-face meeting involving a trained mediator, crime victim, and person who committed the crime. During the meeting the offender and the victim may speak to each other about what happened, the effects of the crime on their lives, and their feelings about it. They may choose to create a mutually agreeable plan to repair any damages that occurred as a result of the crime. Mediators may be professionals in the field, experienced community-member volunteers, clergy, criminal justice professionals, or social workers and other allied health professionals. Extensive case preparation is required before interactions begin, which makes the implementation of the practice very time-consuming. The process involved in VOM humanises the criminal justice experience for both victim and offender through the use of open communication. This experience has been shown to result in high levels of satisfaction with the practice. The practice of VOM is most often applied with less serious offences such as nonviolent property crimes with juvenile offenders but has recently been utilized with more severe offenses. If VOM is not used cautiously, its use with victims of severe crime (murder or domestic violence) may lead to “unintended negative consequences” such as revictimization of a victim or his/her family (Berlinger, 2014; Gumz & Grant, 2009; UNODC, 2006; van Wormer, 2009).

van Wormer (2009) discusses the application of VOM in family and domestic violence cases; in particular with young offenders without an extensive history of violence. The approach can be relevant in a number of situations: where the victim has to testify in an open court (because of a court’s adversarial nature), or when the woman depends on the man for financial support. The process involves community groups that include the victim and her family, as well as the offender and individuals from his support system. Power imbalances are addressed in various ways such as limiting the right of the offender to speak on his own behalf and including community members in a sort of surveillance team to monitor the offender's compliance.

Family Group Conferencing (FGC) was adapted from the traditional practices of the Māori people in New Zealand. It involves more persons than VOM: in addition to the victim and offender, family members, friends, and supporters of the victim and offender are included. These people are involved because they have also been affected in some way by the offence, and because they care about one of the primary participants. FGC involves extensive preconference preparation. it allows the family members of the victim and offender to meet in person to express thoughts and feelings in a way to heal the wrongdoing. FGC is consistent with empowerment practice and the social work value of self-determination. At times it appears FGC is difficult to implement for social workers because of the time constraints social workers face in their occupation (Berlinger, 2014; Gumz & Grant, 2009; UNODC, 2006; van Wormer, 2009).

van Wormer (2003) distinguishes between FGC used for child welfare situations and FGC used in youth offender situations. FGC has the potential to support children in both areas. In child welfare practice, FGC entails the following:

  1. The sharing of decision-making responsibilities with families

  2. Role of the social worker as partner/collaborator rather than expert

  3. Decision making by general consensus

  4. Process and decision making more likely to reflect the culture, traditions and needs of the participants

  5. Stress on the quality of relationships, not family structures

  6. Beginning with a broad definition of what constitutes a family

  7. Acknowledgement of the value of kinship care over stranger care for children in need of care

  8. A solution-focused rather than a problem-focused framework

  9. A proactive rather than an investigative model for addressing child mistreatment

  10. A focus on building up social networks while not being blind to the risks to children in an unhealthy social environment.

Because of its emphasis on the vested interests of the child, FGC is a prime format for decision making in the child welfare field.

FGC for youthful offender situations involves a focus on “deed, not need”. It has the following characteristics:

  1. Entails an informal, “around the table,” non-adversarial process

  2. Includes a trained facilitator as discussion leader

  3. Directly involves the victim and community affected by the wrongdoing in the discussion of the offence

  4. Involves the victim and victim’s family directly in decisions regarding appropriate sanctions

  5. Stresses offender awareness of the human impact of his or her behaviour

  6. Provides the opportunity for the offender to take full responsibility of his or her behaviour

  7. Uses a narrative approach as each person involved tells how he or she is affected by the behaviour in question

  8. Engages the offender’s family members and support system in the conference

  9. Solicits the families’ support in the process of the offender’s making amends and repairing the harm.

Peacemaking Circles are a method of communication and problem solving derived from Aboriginal and Navajo traditions as a community-based way to resolve conflict. In these egalitarian circles, community members, victims, offenders, families and friends, and a facilitator (also known as a circle keeper) speak in a nonjudgmental way with the aid of a talking piece. The circle keeper may be a criminal justice professional, a respected community elder, or a social worker. Many of the qualities of the circle keeper are consistent with social work practice, including a nonjudgmental approach, good listening skills, empathy, respect, patience, and understanding. Peacemaking circles take extensive time and financial resources to prepare and implement. They depend on the active involvement of volunteer community members committed to improving society (Berlinger, 2014; Gumz & Grant, 2009; UNODC, 2006; van Wormer, 2009).

Community Reparation operates at the macro level. Reparation refers to the attempt to repair the damage that was done by the wrongdoers. Community reparation applies when the violation was committed by the whole population, or even the state. Truth telling and recognising the personal suffering that stems from political crime are key aspects (van Wormer, 2009).

Research Overview

It is extremely difficult to evaluate restorative justice programs due to each program’s unique organization, structure, and participant involvement. Selection bias of research participants is an issue for internal validity. Many of the studies conducted to date are suspected to have involved a homogenous sample of Caucasian victims and juvenile offenders. Not surprisingly, the majority of reviewed studies focused on male juvenile offenders. Getting victims, offenders, and communities to agree to participate in restorative justice programs has been documented as a difficult process. Face-to-face, in-person contact between victim, offender, and community is required for VOM, FGC, and peacemaking circles. Yet the very core of these restorative justice practice approaches may be psychologically overwhelming or threatening for potential participants (Gumz & Grant, 2009).

In the context of family violence van Wormer (2009) notes that research into the impact and effectiveness of restorative practice is positive, but also urges caution. Cultural forces may reinforce male control of women. Unless the restorative process is cautious and fully planned through joint decision making with the victim-survivor, the process can be worse than nothing at all. This is especially the case when conducted in cultural systems that are patriarchal.

van Wormer also notes that restorative practice is inappropriate if there is danger to the victim. Some personality types are unsuitable for restorative interventions.

Julich and Cox (2013) state evaluations of restorative justice (restorative practice in justice settings) suggest high victim offender satisfaction rates, lowered rates of reoffending, and higher rates of offenders paying reparations. However, it should be remembered that restorative justice is a voluntary process where the offender has pleaded guilty. Those participants who do engage with restorative justice have a vested interest in the process and so may be more motivated to make it work. In New Zealand, only a small number of cases referred to restorative justice actually proceed to a restorative process. Such attrition occurs for a variety of reasons. Victims or offenders might opt out of the process, or a restorative justice facilitator might have concerns as to the offender’s capacity to demonstrate responsibility and accountability for his or her actions. It is likely that those cases that would produce negative comments on the process are absent from most evaluations.

Restorative practice in schools

Restorative practice has been practised in schools for some time. A New Zealand Government report (Ministry of Education, 2012) provides background around why restorative practice was adopted as well as its positive impacts.

Restorative practice emerged with the acknowledgment of significant problems with punitive systems of behaviour management. Punitive approaches were not bringing widespread reductions in misconduct and were harming engagement with learning, especially among students from minority cultures. Research has shown the use of punitive approaches in schools is problematic:

  • Punition policies do not decrease or deter misconduct.

  • Students become less bonded to school, less interested in school rules and course work and less motivated to achieve success. Students who are less bonded to school may be more likely to turn to lawbreaking.

  • Students from Indigenous and CALD backgrounds are more likely to be suspended and receive more severe punishments.

  • Punition seems to harm school-wide student achievement through inhibiting students’ disposition to take risks in their learning.

  • School suspension increases the risk of anti-social behaviour.

  • Automatic sanctions sometimes cause victims and staff to under-report misconduct. Sanctions, on their own, do not make victims safer.

  • Punition sometimes serves to expose young people to multiple aversive interactions with police for non-criminal behaviour (Ministry of Education, 2012).

Restorative practice, rather than automatically imposing punishment, places relationships at the heart of educational experience. It involves establishing a restorative school-wide culture involving a move away from a reliance on punitive strategies to control and bring about compliance in students. Instead restorative practice including restorative conversations, class circles and conferences, brief restorative interventions, and formal restorative conferences (victim-offender mediation and family group conferences) are used to address misbehaviour (Ministry of Education, 2012).

The formal conference (VOM, FGC) and class circles approaches are similar to those outlined above but adapted for use in school for students, often those who do not respond to restorative conversations between teacher and student. The informal end of the continuum utilises the restorative conversation, a process based around five questions.

  1. What happened?

  2. What were you thinking about at the time?

  3. How did it make you feel?

  4. Who do you think has been affected by your actions? How were they been affected?

  5. What do you need to do now to make things right?

An adult may choose all or some of these questions in discussing misbehaviour with a student. The questions are designed to allow students the opportunity to have a conversation with the adult about what happened, why it happened, its impact and what should happen to make things right. The conversation could often happen with one or more students involved in an incident. Rather than imposing a punishment for misbehaviour, adults who practise in a restorative manner use these questions and, with the student(s) involved, work out an appropriate response (which may include restitution or punishment of some sort) (M. Walsh, personal communication, March 12, 2023).

The fundamental hypothesis of restorative practice is that human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behaviour when those in positions of authority do things WITH them, rather than TO them or FOR them. As a result, classroom conferences, community circles, and brief restorative conversations/interventions are regularly reported as being part of the early intervention problem solving toolkit in schools adopting a restorative approach to pastoral care. The claims of the restorative approach is that it prevents escalation of problems which would result in stand-downs and suspensions.

Julich and Cox (2013) make the following statements about restorative practice research in schools in New Zealand:

  • Almost half of the 325 secondary schools are using restorative practice to not only address discipline issues, but also to manage classroom behaviour and change the culture of a whole school.

  • A small evaluation of 15 schools using restorative practice reported lowered rates of suspensions and exclusions.

  • Schools implementing restorative practice reported calmer school environments, lower levels of student misconduct, improved rates of student achievement, and fewer stand-downs and suspensions.

Overall, studies show restorative practice can lead to better behaviour across the school. For example studies conclude restorative practice results in:

  • reduced suspension and exclusion rates,

  • lower absenteeism,

  • less classroom disruption,

  • reductions in the volume of students misconduct,

  • calmer schools and improved relationships among staff and students,

  • reduced staff absenteeism,

  • lower youth offending

Studies typically include interesting and compelling staff, student and parent narratives about the impact of restorative practice (Ministry of Education, 2012; Scott et al., 2020).

Buckley and Maxwell (2007) suggest a successful restorative approach in schools must include a commitment from the whole school community. It not only relies on restorative practice outlined above but also on use of positive reinforcement and matching tasks to children’s abilities. It requires ongoing staff training and will be an evolutionary process that may take several years to embed in school culture. Drewery (2007) highlights the importance of adopting restorative practice through respectful relationships and discussions between staff and with parents. Restoring order by restoring relationships rather than through restoring through authority is important.

Restorative practice in families

Respectful relationships are very important for a family to function smoothly. As such the above five questions, suitably adapted for the family situation, provide a way to handle incidents of misbehaviour that arise in the family from time to time. The questions provide a platform for discussion to occur between parent and child about what happened, why it happened and what would be suitable consequences.

Aveli, Winterstein and Gal (2021) suggest restorative practice can be used with older adults, especially in the area of elder abuse. They point out that older people can be both abused and overprotected. Restorative practice as a means of empowerment may serve older adults by giving them a voice in their own lives and enabling them to become active participants in mending the wrong done to them. In addition, restorative practice provides older adults who are victims of crime with the opportunity to connect with others and foster social bonds, which is often missing from their lives. In elder abuse situations the older person may feel unable to take legal action against the abuser either because of strong ties or for fear of losing access to care. Potentially, restorative practice enables the parties to rectify any wrong done and to become reconciled in order to sustain their relationship.

Restorative practice in the workplace

Interpersonal conflicts are a significant cause of damaged relationships at work, causing both loss of productivity and loss of employee satisfaction. They can lead to a wide array of negative emotions, from anger to shame to embarrassment which can shape how people respond to the wrongdoer. The stronger the relationship, the worse is the damage when a negative incident occurs. Usually, employees want disputes resolved, but may be unable or unwilling to do this on their own. When disputes occur, most people say they want justice served, a concept that is rooted in Western legal traditions and focuses on individual rights and having an outside authority mete out punishments. However, research indicates that this form of justice is not effective at rebuilding damaged relationships. Punishment harms the offender but does not provide any reparation to help the victim restore his/her outcomes. This raises several problems:

  • It discourages personal accountability—the punished person feels resentment rather than remorse; something detrimental to repairing relationships.

  • The victim’s needs are excluded from the process—restitution or apology is not part of the process.

  • Anger often remains with the victim; feelings of revenge still remain following punishment.

  • he wider community, often also affected, are excluded from the process. This can have a ripple effect on the entire work group breeding coalitions and general levels of mistrust (Kidder, 2007; Paul & Riforgiate, 2015).

Restorative practice represents an alternative view of how to resolve disputes. Its success lies in the implementation of Wachtel and McCold’s ‘to-not-for-with’ framework described above. The restorative (with) approach is high in control and high in support. By promoting dialogue among conflicting parties, possibly facilitated by a third party, the restorative approach confronts and disapproves of the wrongdoing but at the same time it is reassuring the wrongdoing employee of their value to the workplace and community in an environment of respect and support (Julich & Cox, 2013; Paul & Riforgiate, 2015).

Restorative practice holds the promise of helping to repair damaged relationships at work, although there are limits to its effectiveness as well. Three values lie at the heart of restorative practice: participation, reparation and reintegration.

  • Participation Everyone affected by the conflict should be involved in a meeting. Victims, offenders and the community meet with an experienced facilitator with the goal of promoting reconciliation. Taking turns, the victim, offender and community are able to tell their story, take responsibility for harm, and propose solutions.

  • Reparation This commences with an acknowledgement of harm caused, where all participants work together to devise ways to repair the damage and learn from the experience. A sincere apology is one of the most powerful and effective forms of reparation.

  • Reintegration Ideally a restorative justice meeting leads to forgiveness from the victim towards his/her offender. Forgiveness does not mean excusing or condoning the action. Participants are expected to condemn the offence while reaffirming the worth of the person committing the offence. This allows the offender to save face. It increases future compliant behaviour (Goodstein & Aquino, 2010; Kidder, 2007).

Restorative justice cannot completely replace the traditional due process systems. Two areas are critical for effective restorative justice to occur:

  • Participation in the meeting must be voluntary for all parties involved. This results in more trusting environments.

  • Offenders must be made accountable for their actions without being bullied, shamed and lectured by victims, or by allowing the victim to make demands on the offender that he/she cannot meet (e.g. repayment of money when the offender has no money) (Kidder, 2007).

Not all offences are appropriate for a restorative practice intervention. The process is time consuming and has to be carefully handled by a highly trained facilitator (Goodstein & Aquino, 2010; Julich & Cox, 2013; Kidder, 2007).

Restorative practice in the justice system

The core ideas of restorative practice in the justice system are that:

  • because crime causes harm, a core requirement of justice should be to repair that harm.

  • the people most immediately affected should be supported in their search for reparation, &

  • members of a broader community (including professionals) may also participate in that search (AARI, 2020).

Restorative practice holds that an official response to crime should not only (i) respond to the specific incident and the harm it has caused. An official response should also work to (ii) prevent harmful behaviour from recurring, and (iii) promote the wellbeing of those affected. In the criminal justice system restorative programs deliver appropriate facilitated, structured processes:

  • To divert people from facing court,

  • As part of the sentencing process after a determination of guilt, and/or

  • As post-sentencing or pre-release healing, where the community of people affected by a crime-that-has-attracted-a-custodial-sentence meet to “make sense” of their experience together. Used post-sentence or pre-release, a restorative process seems to support people to “get on with their lives”.

This restorative process approach involves group conferencing, for example as victim-offender mediation (VOM), Family Group Conferences (FGC) and Peacemaking Circles outlined earlier in this post.

Burford and Adams (2004) use Braithwaite’s regulatory pyramid to place restorative practice in the overall justice system where restorative practice form the basis of the pyramid. This is based on the notion that people who are willing to acknowledge the existence of a problem come together and offer suggestions about what needs to be done about it, and participate in shaping the plan, are then considerably more likely to comply with that plan, even when its design is to regulate their own behavior. Being clear with an offender that his/her behavior is unacceptable needs to be done in a respectful way.

Restorative practice and social work values/theories

Many values of social work – service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, empathy, community involvement, integrity and competence - are congruent with the principles of restorative justice. Common to all restorative models across the restorative practice continuum is an emphasis on the needs of the victim, truth telling in one's own voice, direct communication, and accountability of the offender to the victim. These attributes are consistent with social work values of self-determination and enhancing a person's sense of dignity and worth (Gumz & Grant, 2009; van Wormer, 2009).

Restorative practice theory locates itself within the broad spectrum of sociological crime theories which places the causes of criminal behaviour within society and its structures, rather than within the individual. Numerous psychological and sociological theories associated with social work interventions such as empowerment, advocacy, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice, group work, cognitive behaviour therapy, family therapy, feminism and community development can be seen to varying degrees to underpin restorative practice interventions, practices and processes. For example, empowerment and advocacy are two key theoretical perspectives that underpin the FGC approach, as service users / victims / clients are empowered to take a greater control over the events in their lives and in turn, have a much greater say in the outcomes that affect them. Advocacy is seen as enabling the service user to have a voice in terms of expressing their rights and having choices in the services they receive. These two approaches emphasise the devolvement of power away from the organisational and professional ‘expert’ to one that seeks to share power and control with all parties. This complements and interlinks with anti-discriminatory practice and anti-oppressive practice, as empowerment and advocacy seeks to address the abuse of structural power that effect people’s lives at the macro and micro level of society (Fox, 2009).

Restorative practice is also intertwined with the ‘strengths-based approach’ to social work, which seeks to establish an individual’s positive attributes over perceived deficits. It acknowledges that individuals, families and communities all have strengths, which can be drawn upon to address particular social welfare issues. All these approaches seek to empower, nurture and support relationships, not only between service user and carer but also to extend this to include professionals, families and community (Fox, 2009).

Practice Approach

While the above material identifies a number of areas where restorative practice has been used with positive impact, restorative practice can be used in many situations to deal with conflict, build relationships and repair harm. Restorative practice achieves this by facilitating people to communicate effectively and positively about behaviour, not about the people involved in the behaviour. Restorative practice is increasingly being used in schools, with children and families, in workplaces, with communities and the in criminal justice system. Restorative practice can involve both a proactive approach to preventing harm and conflict and activities that repair harm where conflicts have already arisen. Such a proactive approach is based on core, restorative practice beliefs:

  • Everyone has their own unique perspective on a situation or event and needs an opportunity to express this in order to feel respected, valued and listened to. This is achieved by developing the skill of non-judgemental, active listening and creating mechanisms where everyone feels listened to.

  • What people think at any given moment influences how they feel at that moment, and these feelings inform how they behave. People need to share their own thoughts and feelings and be curious about others’ thoughts and feelings.

  • Empathy and consideration for others is crucial to the health and wellbeing of us all. How will/were others be affected if such and such happens?

  • Our unmet needs drive our behaviour, e.g. respect, recognition, appreciation, belonging, understanding. Without addressing unmet needs by meeting the needs constructively, behaviour change is unlikely.

Restorative practice is consistent with the values of social work: respect for others, dignity, service, seeking social justice, empowering people to take control of their lives, repairing relationships, promoting community repair and development. Restorative practice has the potential to repair relationships and avoid situations escalating because it provides a structure so the victim and offender in the situation are able to discuss with each other the personal impact of what happened, in an effective and positive manner.

Restorative practice can be easily utilised by social workers in many situations because it exists along a continuum from informal practice to formal practice.

Restorative practice is often seen as useful in the criminal justice system to avoid jail time. In this situation formal conferences - victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, or peacemaking circles – are usually utilised. The role of social workers as facilitators of these formal processes has been outlined in the material above. However, these processes take time to prepare, implement and follow up, time that not all social workers will have.

It is more likely that restorative practice will be used by social workers in other areas, i.e. used informally in situations outside the criminal justice system. Social workers will be operating at the informal/central end of the continuum. This informal use revolves around asking/discussing one or more of five questions:

  1. What happened?

  2. What were you thinking about at the time?

  3. How did it make you feel?

  4. Who do you think has been affected by your actions? How were they been affected?

  5. What do you need to do now to make things right?

The purpose of the five questions is to enable relationships to be repaired. In many instances all five questions may not be needed. The essential part of restorative practice is to have a discussion about the incident with a view to repairing the situation and, where necessary, engaging in actions to restore relationships. Starting with “What happened?” gives a person a chance to explain and will probably remove the emotion from the situation (for both offender and listener). Sometimes this quickly leads to (calmly) discerning what has to be done to make things right. At other times more questions may have to be asked, with the aim of gathering a full picture of the situation. The purpose of this discussion is to fully understand the situation without intervening emotionally (e.g. getting angry), restore relationships, and make amends in a suitable way.

Restorative practice at this informal level can be used with individuals (say a parent with a misbehaving child), with two people who may be in some form of conflict (e.g. an incident in a school playground), or with a group where each person is given time to contribute to the discussion (an issue in a class that is causing distress, or a workplace issue involving a number of staff). Like the formal restorative procedures, less formal restorative practice has the potential (and the aim) to break down the power imbalance between people and restore relationships through some form of action (e.g. an apology, repairing damage, carrying out a suitable consequence).

Restorative practice, often without a formal restorative conference, can be utilised in the following areas (not an exhaustive list by any means):

  • counselling,

  • schools,

  • children’s services,

  • criminal justice

  • community organisations,

  • reintegrating people into society after a prison term,

  • workplaces, and

  • parenting.

Supporting Material / References

(available on request)

AARJ: Australian Association for Restorative Justice. (2020). Restorative justice.

Avieli, H., Winterstein, T. B., & Gal, T. (2021). Challenges in implementing restorative justice with older adults: Institutional gatekeepers and social barriers. British Journal of Social Work, 00, 1-18. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcab051

Berlinger, E. N. (2014). Youth incarceration: Restorative justice and social work practice. Masters Thesis, Smith College, Northampton, M.A.

Buckley, S., & Maxwell, G. (2007). Respectful schools: Restorative practices in education. A summary report.

Burford, G., & Adams, P. (2004). Restorative justice, responsive regulation and social work. The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 31(1), 7-26.

Drewery, W. (2007). Restorative practices in schools: Far-reaching implications. In G. Maxwell & J. H. Liu(eds.), Restorative Justice and Practices in New Zealand (pp. 199-213). Wellington, New Zealand: Institute of Policy Studies.

Fox, D. (2009). Social welfare and restorative justice. Kriminologija i socijalna integracija, 17(1), 1-96.

Goodstein, J., & Aquino, K. (2010). And restorative justice for all: Redemption, forgiveness, and reintegration in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 31, 624-628. doi: 10.1002/job.632

Gumz, E. J., & Grant, C. L. (2009). Restorative justice: A systematic review of the social work literature. Families in Society, 90(1), 119-126. doi: 10.1606/1044-3894.3853

Hopkins, B. (2015). From restorative justice to restorative culture. Revista de Asistenta Sociala, 14(4), 19-34.

Julich, S., & Cox, N. (2013). Good workplaces: Alternative dispute resolution and restorative justice. In J. Parker (Ed.). The big issues in employment: HR management and employment relations in NZ.

Kidder, D. L. (2007). Restorative justice: Not “rights’, but the right way to heal relationships at work. International Journal of Conflict Management, 18(1), 4-22. doi: 10.1108/10444060710759291

Opie, T., & Roberts, L. M. (2017). Do black lives really matter in the workplace? Restorative justice as a means to reclaim humanity. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 36(8), 707-719. doi: 10.1108/EDI-07-2017-014

Paul, G. D., & Riforgiate, S. E. (2015). “Putting on a happy face,” “getting back to work,” and “letting it go”: Traditional and restorative justice understandings of emotions at work. The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronic de Communication, 25(3&4).

Scott, M., Jones, B., Cavanagh, T., Metas Vigil, P. L., & Pointer, L. (2020). The future of school social work: Providing leadership through restorative justice coordination. Educational Research: Theory and Practice, 31(1), 57-62.

UNODC: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2006). Handbook on restorative justice programmes. Criminal Justice Handbook Series.

van Wormer, K. (2003). Restorative justice: A model for social work practice with families. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 84(3), 441-448.

van Wormer, K. (2009). Restorative justice as social justice for victims of gendered violence: A standpoints feminist perspective. Social Work, 54(2), 107-116.

Wachtel, T., & McCold, P. (2001). Restorative justice in everyday life. In H. Strang & J Braithwaite (Eds.), Restorative justice and civil society (pp. 114-129). Cambridge University Press;


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