Our legal system often fails to help either victim or offender. Years after a crime, victims may still suffer from post-traumatic stress. Offenders, too, can struggle after their release from prison; limited rehabilitation means that they often return to a life of crime. To help remedy these wrongs, proponents of “restorative justice” methods advocate for face-to-face meetings between victims and offenders.

Victims who participate in such discussions with a perpetrator report feeling they can forgive their attacker, and offenders say they feel responsibility for their actions—a change in trajectory for both parties. Two recent randomized controlled studies add to mounting evidence for the effectiveness of these restorative practices.

Caroline M. Angel, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues examined the effects of restorative justice for London robbery and burglary victims and their perpetrators. The victims were randomly assigned either to go through both the court system and a restorative justice conference or to go through just the court system. In the restorative justice group, trained facilitators led meetings where offenders discussed the effects of the crime with their victims and the victims' family and friends. About a quarter of the victims who went through the criminal justice system showed clinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress, but only 12 percent of the group who also had restorative justice conferences had symptoms. “Restorative justice gives victims that chance to reframe the story and heal in the process,” Angel says.

The second study, conducted by University of Cambridge criminologists Lawrence Sherman and Heather Strang and their colleagues, focused on whether these methods can reduce reoffending. The research, published in March in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, analyzed 10 trials that used randomized controls to examine the effect of restorative justice conferences on criminals. They found that offenders who participated in the conferences committed fewer subsequent crimes and that the method was also cost-effective.

Overall, research from the past 20 years has shown that restorative justice works—yet such practices are uncommon in the American criminal justice system. Advocates say the reluctance stems from our culture of harsh punishment and politicians' need to be seen as “tough on crime.” Nevertheless, pilot programs have sprung up at a few locations across the country in recent years, and researchers hope that these findings will spur more change soon.