Transformative, Restorative, Retributive Justice and more…

There are several models of issuing justice. Some are rehabilitative, retributive, transformative, and restorative. They all have different impacts on victims, offenders/subjects, and society as a whole. I would like to define each term to help everyone gain a better understanding of what exactly is at stake here.


Rehabilitative justice is defined as “(p)unishment intended to reform a convict so that (he/)she can lead a productive life free from crime.” This is also referred to as the medical model of criminal justice. The idea focuses on trying help the offender, or subject, change behaviors that prevent them from being able to live a relatively “normal” life. This includes things such as rehabilitation from substance abuse, treatment for mental and medical illnesses, and therapies for dealing with emotional reactions.

Retributive justice is the model used in the American justice system. It became a focus after Robert Martinson effectively put forth that “nothing works”. It says that the system should be modeled after someone getting their “just desserts” (why do I keep seeing “just deserts” in my textbooks?), that the “punishment should fit the crime”. This style goes back many millenia, such as with Biblical principles of “eye for an eye” type punishments. Sentencing guidelines, truth in sentencing laws, and three strikes laws are examples of this model. One issue I have with it is that revenge isn’t justice. We are implored by officials to not seek revenge, but that is exactly what the American justice system is set up to do. Combining this with a huge increase in prohibited behaviors (ie, the Drug War) has led to the United States of America having the highest incarceration rate of any country on the planet, and a recidivism rate hanging around at about 67.5%.

Revenge is destructive to everyone involved.

Revenge is destructive to everyone: the one that revenge is sought against, the one seeking revenge, and everyone around them. It seems that in reaction to such alarming statics for “the land of the free”, people are looking again at Martinson’s methodology and conclusions and are beginning to reintroduce rehabilitation into the system.

victim rights restorationRestorative justice “is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.” This is still in use in a lot of juvenile delinquent programs. The idea is to get the victim “restored”, usually by some form of restitution. This is a closer link, in my opinion, to real justice as the victim is the focus of the program. There is also usually a focus on the offender/subject in the way of rehabilitation and family support to help keep binds to the community, a reason for the person to reform and have a successful reentry to society. For that reason, restorative and rehabilitative justice are grouped together. I don’t do that because rehabilitative justice methods may not focus much, or at all, on the victim.

restorative justice vs. non-restorative justice

“Transformative justice uses a systems approach, seeking to see problems, as not only the beginning of the crime but also the causes of crime, and tries to treat an offense as a transformative relational and educational opportunity for victims, offenders and all other members of the affected community.” This focuses on restitution, rehabilitation, and education. There are a number of efforts to get this model growing. One that was recently brought to my attention (indeed my introduction to Transformative Justice as it is not mentioned in any of my textbooks so far) is Philly Stands Up. They have a lot of great literature on the topic on their site and I urge everyone to check them out and learn from the resources they offer.

My personal opinion is that retribution is a failure. Nonviolent offenders are thrown into prisons with some very evil criminals and in that environment, they have to change to survive. Those changes do not translate well on the outside, so the person has become “institutionalized”. Chances of reoffending (either the old charge or new crime) become very high. The thought of going back to prison isn’t a great deterrent because they know they have survived it before. I would love to see a return to rehabilitation but also more focus on things like restorative and transformative justice models.

Restorative and Transformative Justice
Restorative and Transformative Justice focuses on everyone, not just the offender and society.

The victim has to be a consideration when it comes to justice as THEY were the ones wronged to start with. Victim advocacy has grown into a field of its own and rightfully so. Victims don’t need revenge, they need justice. Most offenders/subjects also need justice – they are humans as well, some consider themselves victims of circumstance and if they are not shown another way, they will continue the cycle of criminality. Society as a whole, as I have learned, is woefully uneducated in the various models of justice and how each model works. Most still blindly cling to the idea of the punishment needing to fit the crime but they don’t understand exactly what that means. They also fail to understand the consequences and blowback on various laws and policies such as the Drug War (I’ll get into that in another entry later).

This is why I started this blog – to inform and discuss the criminal justice system as it is and as it can be. Please feel free to comment and share anything you see here. Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something from this entry that you didn’t already know.

*Images and sources linked when posted/cited


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