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Book Review:Australian Study Assesses the Strengths of Restorative

Heather Strang’s new study, Repair or Revenge: Victims and Restorative Justice (2002), is valuable addition to the literature available to practitioners. While other studies have examined the impact of restorative justice options and processes on crime victims involved with them, the extent and methodological sophistication, not to mention acuity, of these investigations has varied. This study, however, is, as far as I know, the most scientifically balanced study to focus entirely on victim-oriented expectations and outcomes as a result of restorative justice interventions
Repair or Revenge: Victims and Restorative Justice by Heather Strang. New York, NY:Oxford Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-925164-9.

Reviewed By Russ Immarigeon.

The contemporary “restorative justice movement” is over two decades old and extends at least as far back as the mid-1970s when victim-offender reconciliation programs (VORPs) first appeared in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada and later in Valparaiso, Indiana, USA. The early architects of VORPs were readily clear about the relationship between victims and offenders. The criminal justice system treated both parties poorly, they felt, and VORPs were designed, accordingly, to establish procedures to undo these harms. Specifically, VORPs were intended to bring victims and offenders together to fashion a remedy for the events that initially brought them together (assuming they were unknown to each other previously) and to address the deprivations they suffered or the consequences they experienced prior to or after criminal acts. VORPs were initially a critique of the criminal justice system, which they were designed to change or even to replace, as well as a means to improve the treatment of victims and offenders. One thing was clear: Those who developed VORPs – from Mark Yantzi and Dave Worth in Canada to Howard Zehr and Mark Umbreit in the USA – wished to make things better for both parties. They were interested in “victims and offenders,” not “victims vs. offenders” or “offenders vs. victims.” 

In the early stages of criminal justice-oriented reform movements, a few people or groups characteristically embrace a set of ideas or plans that must eventually be communicated – effectively one hopes – to a broader and larger spectrum of people and organizations, including those who are the subject of initial reform impulses. With restorative justice, as with victim rights or with the community service/ restitution or intensive supervision/ intermediate sanctions movements of the 1980s and 1990s, this has not always been done smoothly or well. As a slight indicator of this, I vividly remember sitting next to Howard Zehr in the early 1980s at an annual meeting of what is now called the Victim Offender Mediation Association when the invited dinner speaker from a national victim rights organization verbally attacked VORP advocates for ignoring victims. Zehr, who subsequently wrote the pamphlet-length “Retributive Justice, Restorative Justice” (1985) and the book-length Changing Lenses (1990) that launched the restorative justice movement, nearly spun around in his chair, because “ignoring victims” was the furthest thing from his mind. 

While advocates of restorative justice argue for a balanced approach toward victims and offenders, the interventions required to establish such an approach are often inadequate or missing, leaving if not an absence of services, then at least an imbalance in service delivery. Moreover, as restorative justice messages have made their way to broader and larger audiences, the relative centrality of victims and offenders in restorative justice processes remains a contested area in terms of victim and offender relationships to each other and to victim and offender relationships to the criminal justice system. One of the reasons for this is that many areas of concern for the successful implementation and use of restorative justice remain empirically untested - vague promises rich in potential, but unclear in actuality. 

As the restorative justice movement has grown, many arguments have been made on behalf of crime victims about the benefits and utility of victim offender mediation programs (as VORPs are often called these days), family group conferences, sentencing circles and other forms of restorative justice. A few years ago in a review of relevant literature, I observed, “The actual impact of restorative justice sanctioning on crime victims is important for the well-being of crime victims and restorative justice theory” (Immarigeon, 1999, p. 320).

In this same edited collection of papers from the First International Conference on Restorative Justice for Juvenile, held in Leuven, Belgium in May 1997, Mara F. Schiff (1997) contributes an article reviewing the literature on the impact of restorative justice on offenders. In restorative justice, treating victims and offenders on their own merits, as Schiff and I did in our articles, is the right way to proceed. Restorative justice is most on target when it addresses both parties independently than in some crude comparison with one another, wherein “injustices” experienced by one party become suitable for application with the other.  Heretofore, however, relatively few attempts have been made to investigate, measure, and assess the impact of restorative justice processes on crime victims. 

In this context, Heather Strang’s new study, Repair or Revenge: Victims and Restorative Justice (2002), is valuable addition to the literature available to practitioners. While other studies have examined the impact of restorative justice options and processes on crime victims involved with them, the extent and methodological sophistication, not to mention acuity, of these investigations has varied. This study, however, is, as far as I know, the most scientifically balanced study to focus entirely on victim-oriented expectations and outcomes as a result of restorative justice interventions. 

The data for Strang’s research comes from the Reintegrative Shaming Experiments (RISE) Project. The RISE Project centers around three major concerns – the reintegrative shaming theories of John Braithwaite (Braithwaite, 1989), the so-called “Wagga” model of police-based family group conferencing (Moore and O’Connell, 1994), and the utility of empirical research to inform about effectiveness of social interventions. The core of this volume is Strang’s assessment of quantitative data that emerged from the RISE Project, but she also makes good advantage of qualitative data derived from her keen reading of the literature, as well as interviews and correspondence with crime victims and crime victim advocates. 

For readers interested in further details about the RISE project, access to its reports and publications, is available at The RISE Project is currently housed at the Center for Restorative Justice in the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences, where Strang currently serves as its director. Further information about the work being done at the Center, including other restorative justice research projects, is available at

Repair or Revenge consists of eight chapters – the first three describe the traditional role of victims in the criminal justice system, the rise of the victim or victim rights movement, and the theory and practice of restorative justice; the fourth chapter describes Strang’s research design and methods; the next three chapters report her research findings on the lived experience of victims of crime, crime victims level of satisfaction with restorative justice, and the relationships between victims and offenders, this latter analysis co-authored with Daniel J. Woods; and finally the eighth and last chapter sums up the findings and implications of this study. 

Strang places crime victims and restorative justice within a local as well as international context. So far, the restorative justice movement does not have an authoritative, comprehensive telling of its history. When one is written, the evolution of restorative justice, and the role of victims within that history, will vary from place to place. While victims are essential partners in all versions of restorative justice, the context and parameters of their inclusion differs significantly from one nation to another. Strang’s brief description of this larger history necessarily gives emphasis to developments within the Canberra area, where the RISE Project has been running its course. Still, she provides a tantalizing glimpse of the overall international story. 

Strang shows that in Canberra the victim movement, and consequently restorative justice, was initiated through the efforts of local murder victim relatives who grouped themselves together in the late 1980s. Like restorative justice, the victim movement has its own local identity from one place to another. Strang observes, however, that two trends are important. 

First, the research literature on crime victims shows a similar set of basic complaints. In particular, she states, “The common experience of victims in the Western criminal justice system is marked by routine lack of attention to the question of restitution, or, in broader terms, the repair of harm suffered. It is also marked by the persistent neglect of non-material dimensions of victimization: psychological and emotional consequences such as mistrust, unresolved anger, and fear. In addition, many victims experience frustration and alienation from the criminal justice system because of routine lack of communication, a perceived lack of procedural fairness, as well as dissatisfaction with the outcome of their case. Owing to their exclusion from the decision-making process – or, indeed, any input at all beyond their role as witness for the prosecution. Finally, victims need their sense of dignity, worth, and respect to be restored before the harm caused can be properly repaired” (p. 23) .

Second, Strang reports that different approaches to these conditions have emerged in Europe, where victim work is “support-focused,” and in the United States, where such efforts have been “rights-focused.” In Canberra, she suggests victims have taken “a third way” that escapes the narrow confines the American and European approaches, but manages to capture what Kent Roach (1997) has called a “progressive approach” that extends beyond punishment and retribution. As the history of restorative justice is eventually told, it is likely that this three-part typology will undoubtedly crumble around its edges, mainly due to the fact that restorative justice has emerged not simply because of victim interests, but because of a plethora of interests, including the treatment of offenders in the criminal justice system (Daly and Immarigeon, 1998). 

Still, the Canberra experiment, like many ahistorically conceived efforts to implement restorative justice, ambled forth with both optimism and an opportunity to challenge the practice of criminal justice.  On the positive side, Strang observes, Canberra’s embrace of restorative justice addresses a less formal approach to criminal justice that includes victim perspectives, an approach that focuses attention on the process as well as the outcome of cases, a process wherein there is greater, fair, and respectful victim (and I would add offender) participation, and an outcome that involves emotional as well as material benefits. 

Strang describes the RISE Project - a randomized control trial - as “(t)he most methodologically compelling means of determining whether in fact conferences can deliver what victims want in a way superior to normal court processing.” (p. 61) In short, Strang uses the ascribed method to measure and compare the influence on contemporary criminal justice practices on victims who are at least assigned, if not fully processed, through either traditional court proceedings or through restorative justice processing. 

Strang primary findings are reported in chapters on the lived experiences of crime victims, the level of satisfaction of crime victims involved in traditional criminal justice and more recent restorative justice processes, and a relational survey analysis of victim and offender expectations and perspectives. 

Her research and its findings can be summed up as follows: 

An interview, guided by a structured questionnaire (provided in the appendices in this volume), was given to 232 victims of 196 incidents of property or violent crime to assess the lived experience of victims who were assigned either to traditional court or restorative justice processing (court victims often did not actually go to court and conference victims sometimes did not actually experience a family group conference). Among the findings were the following: 

  • Court and conference victims experienced similar amounts of material or emotional harm in terms of property or violent crimes (the most common emotional harms were suspicion and distrust);

  • While financial restitution was not often awarded for either set of victims, conference victims were less likely to ask for money as part of the case outcome;

  • Restorative justice provided a greater opportunity for material reparation, including community service as well as financial restitution, although this did not occur as often as victims expected;

  • Levels of anger and anxiety were reduced and levels of sympathy and trust were increased about meeting offenders, and this was especially true for victims of violent crime;

  • Four times as many conference victims received an apology, although 90 percent of each group believed they deserved one;

  • Nearly one-half of victims of violent crimes who went to court said that, given the chance, they would harm their offenders, whereas this was the case for only about ten percent of victims who went to conference; and

  • Conference victims were more satisfied with the information they received about case processing and outcomes, the opportunity to participate in the development of case outcomes, and the “fair and respectful treatment” they received.

When Strang shifted her attention to victim satisfaction with conferences, she found mixed results. Conferencing experiences were often better for victims, especially those who were emotionally invested in their cases. However, court appearances, or even non-appearances, seemed satisfactory for victims who wanted the justice system to simply take care of the business of prosecuting and sanctioning offenders. Moreover, Strang found that “victims may be poorly served by conferencing when there is sloppy police investigation of the offense, when facilitators are inadequately trained, when the actual conference is badly organized with insufficient facilities for the participants, and when victims are not sufficiently clear about their roles and legitimate expectations” (p. 152).

The most interesting findings, though, are those found when Strang and Woods (who conducted the statistical analyses) report on a series of victim and offender responses to sets of questions (provided in the appendices to this volume) designed to explore the zero-sum hypothesis that either victim and offender interests/ rights are gained at the expense of the other’s interests/ rights. Questions asked of the victims and offenders involved in 194 incidents addressed emotional harm and restoration, participation in the process, perceptions of procedural justice, and perceptions of the legitimacy of the process. Strang and Woods acknowledge several analytical limitations, including a small data set and the inability to determine the direction of causality. 

Nonetheless, Strang and Woods conclude, “We find that the restorative justice theory is strongly supported on all counts. Contrary to the claims of zero-sum advocates, criminal justice is found to be rife with win/win and lose/lose, with win/win being more common in (family group) conferences and lose/lose more common in courtroom justice. We also find that win/lose occurs in both settings, though much more often in court than in conference, and much less often than win/win.” (p. 160) In short, they suggest restorative justice allows both parties “to benefit” more often in restorative justice than in adversarial justice settings. 

Strang concludes, “(T)here are often substantial advantages to victims in the restorative approach.” (p. 201) Nonetheless, she also acknowledges principled objections to a focus on victim harm, as well as problems with victim fears of facing offenders, a power imbalance between victims and offenders, and the use of victims to pursue offender-oriented objectives. In the end, she notes that the traditional court process may be able to achieve only limited forms of justice for crime victims and the risk of restorative justice, which requires more victim input and participation than routine court processes, may nonetheless provide considerable gains for crime victims. 

“The flexibility of the restorative approach,” she concludes, “means that the complexities of criminal activity and of social life can be accommodated more easily than the structure of the formal justice system could ever allow, giving the opportunity for everyone affected by the crime – direct and indirect victims, offenders’ ‘community of care,” and the offenders themselves – to explain the harm and seek repair" (p. 210). 

Heather Strang’s Repair and Revenge finds that crime victims, often like offenders who have victimized them, are complex, sentient human beings and more able to actively participate in restorative justice processes, such as the Family Group Conferences she describes in Canberra, than in traditional, or even victim-focused, courts guided by adversarial relationships and punitive sanctions. While restorative justice does not always provide victims with the “extent of justice” they expect, “just” outcomes are not as inevitable as they seem in traditional courts. Strang reports, for example, that victims occasionally feel inappropriate or powerless in asking for more attention to their material needs, but this, like other victim concerns, is an issue that seems more likely to be handled with the proper training of conference or restorative justice facilitators. 

Braithwaite, J. (1989) Crime, Shame and Reintegration. New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Daly, K. and Immarigeon, R. (1998) “The Past, Prseent, and Future of Restoratibve Justice: Some Critical Reflections,” Contemporary Justice Review, 1(1): 21-45. 

Immarigeon, R. (1999) “Restorative Justice, Juvenile Offenders, and Crime Victims: A Review of the Literature”, in G. Bazemore and L. Walgrave (eds.) Restorative Juvenile Justice: Repairing the Harm of Youth Crime. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press. Pp. 303-325. 

Moore, D. and O’Connell, T.  (1994) “Family Conferencing in Wagga Wagga: A Communitarian Model of Justice.” In C. Alder and J. Wundersitz (eds.), Family Conferencing and Juvenile Justice. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. 

Roach, K. (1997) “Due process and Victims’ Rights,” unpublished paper. 

Schiff, M. (1999) “The Impact of Restorative Justice Interventions on Juvenile Offenders”, in G. Bazemore and L. Walgrave (eds.) Restorative Juvenile Justice: Repairing the Harm of Youth Crime. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press. Pp. 327-356. 

Strang, H. (2002) Repair or Revenge: Victims and Restorative Justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Zehr, H. (1985) Retributive Justice, Restorative Justice. Elkhart, IN: MCC U.S. Office of Criminal Justice. 

Zehr, H. (1990) Changing Lenses: A New Focus on Crime and Justice. Scottsdale, PA: The Herald Press.


This article was originally published in Community Corrections Report, 2001 Civic Research Institute, Inc., 4478 US Route 27, Kingston NJ 08528, and is reprinted here with express permission.  All rights reserved.  Community Corrections Report is a report letter devoted exclusively to innovative programs, legal developments, and policy trends in probation, parole, and reentry. For subscriptions, write CRI at the address above, or call 609-683-4450 or visit the CRI web site at


June 2003

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