The underlying premises of why restorative approaches are so useful with youth offenders are that children are developmentally different from adults, are inherently good, and are capable of positive change. The goal of restorative justice is to repair harm while simultaneously injecting positive social and cultural norms and values to foster good relationships between community members.
Restorative approaches within the educational system, group homes, police stations, juvenile courts and other institutions and agencies can serve as a positive tools of socialization for at-risk youth; to combat already existing negative influences that may impinge upon a youth’s development.
Youth offenders tend to view their actions as either harmless, isolated incidents or having no ramifications upon the community as a whole. Restorative processes such as peace circles, mediations, victim-offender dialogues, peer juries and victim impact panels expose youth to an emotional environment that makes them aware of the harm caused upon others; allowing a youth to face the shame of his or her actions and providing the youth an opportunity to replace the loss or help heal the harm---fostering genuine remorse and empathy. Through restorative approaches a youth may be able to discover their “true moral self” and a sense of accountability towards others; recognizing that their personal pursuit of happiness is tied into that of others.
Sometimes youth can be so preoccupied with the “perceived rewards” of their actions that they are oblivious to the consequences—until it is too late. Restorative approaches enable the offending youth to further develop their formal operational/rational thinking capabilities. By informing a youth of the potential consequences it enhances his or ability to think hypothetically and to understand how his or her actions can cause detriment to their own life as well.
Restorative processes also help youth identify key adults in their lives that care for their general wellbeing (parents, positive peers, teachers, counselors, staff etc…); and through the awareness of such social support, enhance a sense of self-worth. By providing a safe space for outh to disclose some of the issues that surround their lives, we may be able to identify some unfulfilled fundamental human needs: the need for love, recognition, respect, shelter, material necessities, monetary gain etc…
Personal frustrations resulting from poverty, lack of resources and restriction from certain government benefits, educational opportunities and jobs (often because of a criminal background and other social barriers) can also foster a sense of alienation from society; which exacerbates a youth’s susceptibility to indulge in certain criminal behaviors, which on the surface appear to promise immediate relief---such as stealing, selling drugs, or using force or threat of force to take things from others. Linking youth with life skills classes, vocational training, job leads, expungment programs, and safe schools are some of the many ways we can offset those behaviors and develop a youth's competency to prevent re-offending.
The traditional penal approach forces offending youth to experience various types of deprivations, but these experiences rarely make a youth aware of the loss and hurt experienced by victims—material loss, mental loss, emotional loss, and spiritual loss. Instead, incarceration can deepen the resentment of at-risk youth towards authority figures, causing us to lose the leverage of being caring adults—something which every youth needs in his or her life. Restorative consequences become participatory experiences in the milieu of a forgiving community rather than solitary ones in an unforgiving prison cell. In order for a youth offender to truly experience the transformative power of restorative justice he or she must in some way adopt the restorative principles as though they were their very own.
The force and weight of a negative influence in a child’s life can only be overcome by the force and weight of an equal, if not greater, positive influence. In other words, if we are to ever help youth overcome the allure of destructive lifestyles, we need to have an even stronger and more meaningful approach in youth justice. We have to love, respect and protect them; while at the same time, providing them with meaningful resources that can help address their needs—educational and occupational opportunities, youth programs, mental health treatment, mentors and other supportive services to begin with The more comprehensive our approach of love and outreach the greater the impact we will have upon a child's life.