Balanced and Restorative Justice

Continuing high violent juvenile crime rates over the past five years has raised concerns as to the effectiveness of juvenile justice system intervention. Out of these concerns, Act 33 of Special Session No. 1 was passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in November 1995. Act 33 amended Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act to provide that, consistent with the protection of the public interest, the purpose/mission of the juvenile justice system is…

“to provide for children committing delinquent acts programs of supervision, care and rehabilitation which provide balanced attention to the protection of the community, the imposition of accountability for offenses committed and the development of competencies to enable children to become responsible and productive members of the community.”

The new purpose clause in Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act is premised on the concept that the clients of the juvenile justice system includes the victim, community and the offender, and that each should receive “balanced attention” and gain tangible benefits from their interactions with Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system. This concept also requires that the system seeks to address goals regarding community protection, offender accountability, and the development of competencies in each case, and that “system balance” should be sought through the allocation of the resources necessary to achieve the goals associated with each client.

The concept of Restorative Justice holds that when a crime is committed the offender incurs an obligation to restore the victim – and by extension of the community – to the state of well-being that existed before the offense. The principle of balanced in connection with restorative justice derives from the balanced approach concept, which suggests that the juvenile justice system should give equal weight to 1) holding offenders accountable to victims, 2) providing competency development for offenders in the system so they can pursue legitimate endeavors after release, and 3) ensuring community safety.

Previous efforts to reform the juvenile justice system have brought about positive changes including increased due process protections for juveniles, improved classification and risk assessment, and smaller, less crowded residential facilities. However, these reforms in the structure and process of offender treatment have done little to change the content of intervention. New programs have occasionally provided innovation and suggested directions for altering the context of intervention. Unfortunately, however, most new programs have followed trends and fads in juvenile justice and are typically added without attention to goals or needs. Moreover, even when effective, such programs often serve relatively few clients and thus have little impact on improving the system as a whole.

Creating a system that is “out of balance” and implies that efforts to achieve one goal (e.g., offender accountability) should not hinder efforts to achieve other goals.

As the primary sanctioning goal in BARJ, Offender Accountability refers specifically to the requirement that offenders “make amends” for the harm resulting from their crimes by repaying or restoring losses to victims and the community. Competency Development, the rehabilitative goal for intervention, requires that youth who enter the juvenile justice system should exit the system more capable of being productive and responsible in the community. The Community Protection goal explicitly acknowledges and endorses a long time public expectation – a safe and secure community.

BARJ is founded on the belief that juvenile justice is best served when the victim, community and youth are viewed as equal clients of the juvenile justice system who will receive fair and balanced attention, be actively involved in the justice process, and gain tangible benefits from their interactions with the juvenile justice system.

As a program model, BARJ has advantages over traditional justice systems models such as the treatment and the punishment models, which remain in constant conflict with one another. Unlike these models, BARJ underscores the importance of the victim (individual or community) in the juvenile justice process and requires the offender to actively pursue restoration of the victim by paying restitution, performing community service, or both. The Balanced Approach has the ability to improve the quality of life in communities by engaging offenders to work on community improvement projects as part of the offender accountability and competency development components of the BARJ model. The BARJ model also restructures juvenile justice staff roles from largely office-based functions to community involvement work and supervision of offenders in competency development endeavors.