Recidivism rates for adults in the United States are notoriously high and youth don’t fare much better — one analysis found that young people were much more likely to reoffend after release as compared to adults. The United States is also the only country where people under 18 can be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

What if we restructured the way our systems rehabilitate young people who have committed crimes? It’s not just an idea — it’s an approach already being used in some communities.

What is Restorative Justice?

Rejecting punitive practices, restorative justice is a community-centered framework rooted in Indigenous peacemaking that seeks instead to hold individuals accountable for their actions and prepare them to be safely reintegrated into their communities. Restorative justice views crime in terms of the harm experienced by the person or people wronged and seeks to repair that harm by mending the young person’s relationship with the community. Restorative justice interventions often include, but are not limited to, mediated face-to-face dialogue between the person harmed and the young person as well as interactions between the young person and a panel of community members representing the person harmed.

Evidence from the field of juvenile developmental neuroscience indicates that, when faced with stressful decisions, teens are more likely to act impulsively without fully considering the consequences of their actions. Thus, young people are uniquely positioned for restorative justice interventions that allow them to repair the harm caused to others by committing a crime.

For example, in a study conducted by researchers at Sam Houston State University in Texas, youth who completed a restorative justice educational program re-offended 31% of the time, as compared to those put through the juvenile justice court system, who re-offended almost 50% of the time. The outcomes for more comprehensive programs were comparable ⁠— community panels had a 24% re-offense rate, indirect mediation came in at 27%, and direct mediation yielded 33%.

A Path to Racial Justice?

Like recidivism, racial inequity within the criminal justice system also has a profoundly negative affect on youth. Traditional juvenile justice schools have been found to be harmful to Native American youth, who lack equal access to the math and science courses required to graduate high school. Despite committing crimes at similar rates, Black youth are arrested at more than twice the rate of white youth due to continued residential segregation and over-policing of predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Restorative justice is interconnected with racial justice. In schools, restorative justice practices disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline facing students of color, who have been shown to receive harsher punishments than white students for the same infractions, which can lead to more interactions with law enforcement.

A shift towards a more restorative system that actually delivers the justice it promises is sorely needed. In addition to ending mass incarceration disproportionately affecting communities of color and funding critical social and medical services rather than policing and for-profit imprisonment, implementing restorative justice practices that promote community healing would undoubtedly benefit young people and their communities.

Action Steps for Donors

Various nonprofit organizations are working towards a restorative justice-oriented future, starting with youth.

  • Learn more about restorative justice.
  • Connect with other donors.
    • Life Comes From It is a grantmaking circle that supports grassroots movement-building work rooted in lived experience and relationships for restorative justice, transformative justice, and Indigenous peacemaking.
  • Take action by supporting nonprofits.
    • Alternatives is a nonprofit that supports more than 3,000 Chicago youth in creating safer communities through restorative justice, behavioral health services, and systems change.
    • The W. Haywood Burns Institute is a Black-led Bay Area-based nonprofit reimagining justice, working to dismantle structural racism, and promoting structural well-being for communities of color.