Restorative justice means restitution for victims, cost savings for taxpayers
Restorative-justice programs ensure that property-crime victims are compensated for their losses and reduce prison costs.
Illinois law provides few remedies for property-crime victims to recover their losses. Anyone guilty of a property crime, such as theft or destruction of property, may be sent to jail or prison, but this precludes them from working to pay off their debt. And even if victims can cover the cost or time needed for a civil lawsuit, incarcerated defendants rarely have the assets to pay them.
Instead of sending property offenders to prison – a solution that isn’t always the best option for low-level offenders – a better approach is to pursue restorative-justice programs that ensure that property offenders work to pay back their victims.
States such as Texas and Kansas have implemented restorative-justice programs as an alternative method of addressing nonviolent property crimes. For example, “Bridges to Life,” a Texas program, is a 12-week course for offenders currently serving time in prison. Bridges to Life, which has provided services to 3,100 offenders, is a faith-based program that encourages interaction between offenders and victims.
The program requires the willing participation of both the defendant and the victim, as well as either the admission or – more rarely – a finding of guilt by the defendant. If both parties are willing, the process begins with a conference between the two. The victim is given an opportunity to discuss the harm inflicted by the offender. Through this discussion, the victim is able to determine appropriate sanctions, such as compensation for damages, community service or the defendant’s volunteering at the victim’s preferred charity.
Research has shown higher rates of victim satisfaction upon the completion of restorative-justice programs than through trials resulting in incarceration. The restorative-justice process continues only if the defendant clearly acknowledges responsibility for the harm he or she caused and demonstrates remorse.
Restorative-justice programs also lower the likelihood that property offenders will commit more crimes in the future: The Bridges to Life program has lowered recidivism rates for participants to 18.6 percent after three years, which is much lower than the national average of 38 percent to 40 percent.
Illinois should implement a similar program. Including victims in the process provides them with greater satisfaction that the wrongs done to them have been redressed. Moreover, these programs lower recidivism and reduce costs, and would benefit Illinois’ overcrowded criminal justice system.
Illinois can start by creating a pilot-program with 500 nonviolent property offenders. With the willing participation of the victim, both parties can participate in a victim-offender mediation program. A forthcoming Illinois Policy Institute report estimates that such a pilot program could save Illinois $780,500 in incarceration costs in one year. If successful and expanded, such a program could save Illinois taxpayers many millions more in future years as well.