Democratic principles of community justice


According to two of the ‘grandfathers’ of community justice David R. Karp and Todd R. Clear, community justice responses to crime are based on three fundamental democratic principles, which attend to the democratic participation of citizens in the justice process. That is, the rights and responsibilities of all participants: victim, offender, onlookers, lawyers, judicial officers, even service providers. These principles are:

  • norm affirmation
  • restoration
  • public safety


Karp and Clear’s view is that all parties impacted or affected by crime have important roles to play in the pursuit of resolving criminal incidents, and civic participation in the criminal justice process is fundamental to finding lasting solutions to improve the quality of community life.


Let’s take a closer look at these three democratic principles using Karp and Clear explanation directly. (See Community Justice: A Conceptual Framework by David R. Karp and Todd R. Clear, in Boundary Changes in Criminal Justice Organisations)


Norm affirmation  

When a community responds to a criminal incident, it seeks not merely to restore credibility to the community’s conception of the moral order by reaffirming that individuals are accountable for their violations of community life, but also to symbolically affirm community norms for others who have not disobeyed them. A fundamental principle of democratic community justice is the reaffirmation of standards that have been brought into dispute by the criminal incident. Norm affirmation is more than an intuitive recognition of right from wrong; it is a conscious process that articulates behavioral standards and provides justification for them.


The idea underlying the pursuit of restoration is that crime has wrought harm and this needs rectification, preferably through restoration rather than reciprocal imposition of more harm. The goal of restorative justice is repairing the damage done by the offense rather than inflicting proportionate harm on the offender.

In essence, this view takes exception to retributive sanctioning that punishes offenders without holding them accountable for making amends to victims and the community at large

Public safety

The third principle of a community justice approach to criminal incidents is public safety: the assurance that offenders will not cause additional harm to community members. This is particularly important for the processes of victim healing and reducing community fear of crime. The quality of community life is in part predicated on the confidence its members have in crossing public spaces and safely engaging other community members. Conviction of an offense undoubtedly makes people suspicious of the offender’s future intentions. A community-oriented response to a criminal incident must address stakeholders’ concerns about offenders’ potential recidivism. Moreover, it requires an active campaign to reassure the community of its safety through concrete steps to enhance formal and informal controls.


Egalitarian principles

Attached to these democratic principles argues Karp and Clear, are four principles that frame a community justice approach to working in criminogenic neighborhoods. These principles elevate the community justice model from the general criminal justice paradigm by emphasising the role that broader social problems cause for communities, for instance wide spread drug abuse, unemployment, school disengagement, poverty and the like. 

In this community justice aims to "broaden the community justice approach beyond the typical reaction to particular incidents (even a considerably different reaction than previously described) to  focus on proactive and preventive measures.

The four principles orient community justice approaches toward egalitarian concerns for equality, inclusion, mutuality, and stewardship. And again we explore these four elements using Karp and Clear's own words.


A community justice approach to inequality begins by considering a community’s capacity for responding to crime and the institutional resources it has available to provide directly for the community welfare. The aim is to increase the community’s capacity to leverage extra local resources on its own behalf in order to enhance the capacity of [local] resources.

The pursuit of social equality is grounded in the moral concern that opportunity is unevenly distributed across society. Communities hard hit by crime are nearly always the same communities that suffer extreme levels of poverty and disorganization, and these communities are also likely to lack the resources to address their crime problems.


The principle of inclusion asserts that communal membership is not cheaply bought or sold.

Much of the pressure for longer prison sentences is predicated on a “kinds of people” perspective on crime: the world can be cleanly divided into good people and bad people, and the sooner the bad people are removed from the public domain, the better.

A community justice approach favors public safety but rejects the simplistic claim that removal of the “bad guys” is the core strategy for solving community safety problems.

Residents existing on the margins of community life are potential resources for community development. The challenge is not to isolate as many dubious residents as possible but to find ways to include as many community members as possible in efforts to improve community quality of life.


As an ethical minimum, community justice stands for peaceful coexistence of self-interested actors and, more importantly, cooperation in the pursuit of mutually beneficial ends.

On the one hand, this entails incentives for prosocial behavior: performing community service, joining a community crime prevention campaign, socializing and supervising youths, and so on.

On the other hand, the mutuality principle endorses disincentives for antisocial behavior: holding offenders accountable for the damage they have caused, increasing the risks of criminal detection, making criminal targets less vulnerable, or reducing the rewards of criminal behavior.

The mutuality principle helps counteract the rational incentives that underlie much criminal activity, in particular the perception by offenders that no one cares enough to intervene. The best approaches alter criminal incentives without increasing coercion in society; freedom is preserved, but the attractiveness of criminality is diminished


Stewardship is a principle that calls on citizens to view themselves as responsible for the welfare of the larger community, not merely in response to their own immediate interests but also to the needs and interests of others, particularly those who are disadvantaged or vulnerable.

It is the community justice principle that advocates civic participation at all levels of the criminal justice process. Who is to be the “community” in community justice, if not its residents? The point is not simply to enhance the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of the public; it is, more fundamentally, to promote democratic citizenship.

Stewardship is also a resource-building idea. The goods that serve the collective community need to be well maintained and strengthened, and the resulting benefits need to be spread widely among the members of the community. Structures are to be maintained in good working order; public places are to be kept clean, attractive, and accessible. The community acts as manager of its own living space and benefits from living in a clean, well-functioning area. The management of public goods is by no means automatic in a highly individualistic society, given the typical conflicts between public and private interests. Thus, stewardship is a principle to be cultivated among community members.

Read more

Keen to read more? We recommend Community Justice by T. Clear, J. Hamilton, JR, and E. Cadora.  ISBN 9780415780278