The Impossible Dreams and Modest Reality of Restorative Justice

22 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2007 Last revised: 4 Nov 2007

See all articles by Malcolm Thorburn

Malcolm Thorburn

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law


The criminal justice system, we are often told, is in crisis. Over the past twenty years, there has been a growing chorus of voices, including many religious organizations, aboriginal advocates, feminist scholars, communitarians and others who say that it is too concerned with its own procedures and that it ignores the particular human needs and concerns of the people whose lives it so deeply affects. Many of these critics have taken up the banner of restorative justice ("RJ") as a loose description for their more optimistic alternative, which they claim has deep roots in Christian theology, in ancient aboriginal conceptions of justice, in feminist ethics of care and in an anti-statist politics of community empowerment.

This essay (which is, in part, a review of Annalise Acorn's 2004 book, "Compulsory Compassion: A Critique of Restorative Justice") places the RJ movement within a larger historical context of critiques of the criminal justice system stretching back at least to the birth of the prison in the early nineteenth century. Like the early nineteenth century reformers, RJ advocates seek not only to vindicate norms of conduct and to deter undesirable conduct, but also to redeem errant human beings. In many ways, however, RJ advocates have more in common with more recent prison abolition movements, for their purpose is to do away with criminal punishment as such.

This essay takes on a dual perspective on the RJ movement. On the one hand, it rejects RJ as an alternative framework for conceiving of criminal justice. Upon close examination, it amounts to little more than a collection of optimistic slogans. Nevertheless, in a culture that is increasingly punitive despite clear evidence that this approach is counter-productive, the message of restorative justice - that we ought to consider all plausible alternatives to punishment - is more pressing than ever.

Suggested Citation

Thorburn, Malcolm Bruce, The Impossible Dreams and Modest Reality of Restorative Justice. Queen's Law Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2005, Queen's Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-14, Available at SSRN:

Malcolm Bruce Thorburn (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

78 and 84 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C5

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