Parallel justice for victims of crime

My friend Susan Herman, formerly executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, has argued for years that victims will never receive justice until their needs are addressed, regardless of whether the person who committed the crime against them is ever identified or prosecuted.  As the title of her new book puts it, we need Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime because “all victims of crime are entitled to a separate path to safety and justice, one that does not replace, but that runs parallel to, the criminal justice process.” (p. 53)

Susan and I have had many discussions about the relationship between parallel justice and restorative justice.  Some have been informal but others have been more formal.  One time, for example, those of us at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding held a “palaver” on our campus in which restorative justice advocates and victim services providers dialogued with Susan around these issues.  Another time Susan and I were part of a four-person panel sponsored by Safe Horizon at the New York City Public Library.

At that latter venue I conceded that Susan may be right:  even though restorative justice in theory gives equal attention to victims and offenders, in the real world of the present criminal justice system, offender concerns are likely to dominate.  Maybe, I said, we will need parallel systems of justice before we can achieve true restorative justice.  After all, many victim needs cannot be met by the offender and/or the community alone.

At the palaver here at EMU, one model suggested was described as a ladder:  parallel systems of justice for victims and offenders with “rungs” that represent pathways back and forth between them at various stages.  Restorative justice programs might operate in these pathways.

Susan acknowledges value in restorative justice programs but sees them as affecting a tiny minority of victims.  Her words long ago have stuck with me:  “I’ll believe restorative justice is victim-centered when it’s available whether or not an offender is identified, whether or not the offender acknowledges responsibility.”  So if I correctly understand her recent comments to me (while sharing the biggest piece of carrot cake either of us had ever faced), she sees a place for restorative justice as an option but, in her words to me, “not every victim can take advantage of it, and even for those who do, it has limited – very important, but limited – value.”

This is true if we see restorative justice as primarily victim-offender encounter programs. However, my preference is to view restorative justice as something much broader and deeper:  as an overall philosophy of justice.

It may well be that even restorative justice would require parallel systems.  However, to be coherent as an overall system of justice, there must be a unifying concept and set of principles guiding both sides.  The criminal justice concept, with its focus on lawbreaking and providing “deserved” sanctions, cannot adequately incorporate the victim side.  With that approach we are forever stuck between the “crime control” and “due process” polices (See “Three justice orientations” blog entry).  Restorative justice, however, could provide a way out of this dichotomy, guiding both tracks.  It need not be limited to the rungs or pathways between the two sides of the ladder.

From a restorative justice perspective, justice should essentially focus on repairing harm, preferring inclusive and collaborative processes to adversarial ones.  If justice would emphasize repairing harm, then, victims would play an integral role; their voices would be heard, they would be given options, their needs would be taken into account.  Although I know there can be great value in various forms of victim offender encounter, I am increasingly convinced that the ultimate importance of restorative justice is as this overall philosophy, not specific practices.

In the meantime, regardless of whether the existing system becomes more victim-sensitive or restorative, Susan provides a place to start.  Parallel Justice suggests where we can begin, concretely, in our communities.  I recommend it.

(Susan Herman is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, Pace University.  Her website is  I have invited her to respond in the Comments below.).

9 comments on “Parallel justice for victims of crime”

  1. Thank you for another insightful and educational post Howard! I had heard of the concept of parallel justice in the past and learned more about it today from professor Herman’s website. While I especially appreciate the goal of giving people hurt by crime an integral role in the justice system, having been almost strangled to death and seriously injured by a stranger who was never apprehended or identified, I believe a restorative approach (philosophy & practices) can achieve this goal.

    In an effort to bring healing to victims without offender participation, including when no offender is identified/charged (appx. 70% of all cases) or the victims simply did not want to meet with offenders (appx. 50% of all cases), in 2002 we provided a pilot here in Hawai’i: Restorative Justice Without Offender Participation: A Pilot Program for Victims The paper describes the outcomes for participants and tells the stories of two victims, one of whom I saw about 6 months ago, who said, “I really appreciated that program.”

    In a current restorative pilot providing reentry planning for incarcerated people, which includes their loved ones, who are often the direct victims of their crimes, we find that providing the victims with the opportunity to be heard and being contacted by someone willing to hear thier stories, is a healing opportunity for many. Not all of the loved ones want to participate, yet have said, “Thank you for calling.” In this program too we have found continued satisfaction for loved ones/victims who do participate even when the offender repeats crime or relapses after being released from prison previously having had the restorative intervention with the loved ones.

    I will try and get a copy of Professor Herman’s book and mahalo again for your work Howard!

  2. What you say is interesting and in many ways true but I’m wondering what you mean in practical terms by: “justice should essentially focus on repairing harm, preferring inclusive and collaborative processes to adversarial ones.” What would these processes look like for victims who cannot, or do not want to, meet their offenders. Isn’t it the case that most victims want to feel safe and believe that punishment (locking people away) will alleviate their pain and suffering. As Restorative Justice has shown (albeit in cases which are few and far between) victims often only find this relief and a sese of restoration when they see their offender as human.

  3. Lisa Rea says:

    Howard, I had not heard of the concept of “parallel justice” previously. Susan Herman’s work sounds interesting as well. In the work I have done in this field (of restorative justice) I have increasingly focused on the needs of victims (since 2000). At one time I worked for Prison Fellowship and its sister group Justice Fellowship advocating for restorative justice in the Califonia Legislature (in the ’90s). I have to say that my first experience in the justice system as an advocate was looking at the system through the eyes of the offender. That was my orientation. But then it changed. I did “change lenses” but without losing my ability, I think, to see the severe impact on both offenders and victims.

    I now refer often to the need for victims-driven restorative justice. That might seem unnecessary to specify but sometimes I think it is something we need to stress. All criminal justice reform (or prison reform) is not automatically restorative justice. I’m amazed at how many people think it is.

    I agree with Susan that “victims will never receive justice until their needs are addressed, regardless of whether the person who committed the crime against them is ever identified or prosecuted.” I think this is accurate. I saw that having worked with many victims of violent crime, but also now doing some work around the area of wrongful convictions. One case, which I wrote about at
    on the PFI Centre’s blog, tells the story of Greg Wilhoit who did time on death row in Oklahoma for a murder he did not commit. But what about the real offender? Greg, thank God, was exonerated; however, the real murderer was never found. The victims’ family have no justice. They have no healing. Their needs go un-addressed and no hope for healing. But we in the restorative justice movement must acknowledge their needs, as victims, and attempt to apply restorative justice there.

    In responding to one point in the above thread, I agree with Susan that restorative justice must be “victims centered” but also victims-driven. I think restorative justice does not reach nearly enough victims (I agree with her). I think that is due to a lack of support for laws that would increase the use of victims- driven restorative justice. I suggest that restorative justice processes should be made available to all victims as an “option”. I think RJ processes can be experienced by victims, and lead to increased satisfaction with the justice system, if the offender does not take responsibility. But it is certainly preferable if that offender does take responsibility and desires to make things right.

    Lisa Rea
    Rea Consulting

  4. Thank you for this post Howard. I always appreciate our conversations. In my view, Restorative Justice and Parallel Justice are similar in that both philosophies focus on repairing the harm created by crime, and both highlight deficits of the traditional adversarial system.

    They are different, however, in important ways. First, because there are many victims of crimes where the offender is never identified, or never admits responsibility, Parallel Justice describes elements of a communal response that can occur regardless of the status of the offender.

    Second, Parallel Justice also recognizes that even if an offender takes responsibility for a crime, repairing the harm often requires many more resources than an offender and individual members of a community can provide. Thus Parallel Justice envisions a very active role for the government, including additional victim-oriented priorities for criminal justice, healthcare, and social service agencies, as well as community-based organizations and individuals. In other words, Parallel Justice intentionally seeks to involve lots of people besides those who might be called stakeholders or affected parties.

    My proposal for Parallel Justice for victims of crime sets forth guiding principles for government agencies, communities, and individuals (including offenders) in order to create a more effective and humane communal response to victims of crime. I believe Restorative Justice practitioners can easily embrace these principles because they are designed to promote reintegration of victims.

    If Restorative Justice programs offer some victims opportunities to learn more about the crime, secure restitution, hear an expression of remorse, or achieve a greater likelihood of safety, so much the better. Restorative Justice programs should be available for any victim who wants to participate in them. But I believe all victims of crime are entitled to a separate, more comprehensive path to safety and justice–one that does not necessarily replace, but runs parallel to, both traditional– and alternative– criminal justice processes.

    Let’s keep our conversation going!

  5. I try to engage and promote Restorative Justice for those that have been harmed, but the harmer has not been caught. We use Circle process and victim empathy seminars, so that vicitms can speak to offenders of similiar crimes.

    It takes some effort to educate referring agencies that victims can access our program directly. We don’t get a great deal of people participating, but they are happy to know we could offer something.

  6. Howard Zehr says:


    My apologies if you have tried to leave legitimate comments unsuccessfully. We have discovered that for some reason, a number of legitimate comments are going into the SPAM file without notifying me that they are there. Meanwhile, I get notice of dozens of inappropriate attempts that don’t end up automatically in the spam file. While we try to find out what is going on, I will check the spam folder on a regular basis in order to catch comments that should be posted.

    My apologies.

  7. Danielle says:

    No problem. I’ve been trying to comment as well but I guess my posts are ending up in the spam folder too. Better luck next time… Anyway, I agree with Kris… I’d go into more depth but I’ll wait until you have the spamming issue straightened out. Have a great day. 🙂

  8. I agree on the “repairing harm” concept when it comes to justice. There definitely needs to be more focus on community too.

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