April 21 2024
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Where are we going with restorative justice?

Where are we going with restorative justice?

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"Kvetch - HMP Grendon, Buckinghamshire, Ariane Bankes Outstanding Award for Oil Acrylic Painting 2008" cut

Kvetch – HMP Grendon, Buckinghamshire, Ariane Bankes Outstanding Award for Oil Acrylic Painting 2008

I remember one afternoon in November 2012 in Vancouver, asking my friend Dr. Evelyn Zellerer, director of Canadian-based Peace of the Circle, why Restorative Justice week is not a international event. Initiated by the Correctional Service Canada (CSC), it has been celebrated annually across Canada since 1996. I then went on to write ‘The McDonaldisation of a community-born and community-led ethos’ a blog that didn’t make me very popular at the time.

A couple of years later and International Restorative Justice Week is firmly established. The theme of ‘Innovation’ seems to have become a permanent feature reminding us of the importance of inspiration and fresh thinking. While I welcome and indeed join the many celebrations, I must ask where are we going with restorative justice?

  • During International Restorative Justice Week 2014, I dare to ask ‘A victim-led Criminal Justice System?’
  • This is the theme of the 3rd International Annual IARS Conference which will see speakers such as UK justice minister Mike Penning; deputy head of unit, European Commission Directorate General Justice, Procedural and Criminal Law Ingrid Bellander-Todino;the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Sauders; and barrister and JusticeGap contriibutor Felicity Gerry QC.
  • Join the debate and if you are free on the evening of the 20th come to the Law Society bar to celebrate with us restorative justice experts from Canada, US, South Africa, Europe and Australia. Throughout the week we will be posting videos with practitioners and others asking them what they understand by innovation. Watch this space and join the debate by emailing contact@iars.org.uk

The legitimacy and performance of the traditional criminal justice system are being questioned internationally. This questioning will intensify as the world economic crisis continues to put pressure on governments to cut down the costs of the criminal justice system.  At the same time governments and international bodies (e.g. the EU, UN, Council of Europe) have taken a keen interest in restorative justice.

Over the last few years, there have been more laws, regulations and policies on restorative justice than ever before. Many restorativists have celebrated these achievements, which according to their calculations should soon mainstream restorative justice.

An alternative paradigm
Here, I dare to ask
whether restorative justice was ever meant or conceived to be mainstreamed. Wasn’t it brought back as a reaction to conflicts been stolen by the state? Going down memory lane, penal abolitionists Barnett, Christie and Eglash were among the first to speak of a crisis, taking place in the criminal justice system, and of an alternative paradigm, which could fundamentally replace the punitive one. Please do not rush to call me an abolitionist. I have championed an integrated model for restorative justice for years (Gavrielides 2005; 2008; 2012; 2013), and therein I repeated my belief that our compromise should not be in the values and ethos of restorative justice. I would also welcome comments on Gavrielides and Artinopoulou’s Reconstructed Restorative Justice philosophy.

My second question, which is probably more appropriate for this week, is where does innovation fit within a mainstreamed restorative justice?

Innovation has the key ingredients of unregulated practice, inspiration, testing, making mistakes, learning and growing. It demands flexibility, piloting, investment and passion. I doubt the criminal justice system or a mainstreamed, regulated and accredited restorative justice can accommodate them.

Braithwaite reminds us that we are still learning how to do restorative justice well. Therefore, we should worry about standards that are too prescriptive. He concludes by arguing that human rights international agreements and conventions aiming to limit the power of the state over the individual are only important for supplying a provisional, revisable agenda for bottom-up deliberation on restorative justice standards that are appropriate to distinctively local anxieties about injustice. In his seminal essay ‘Setting Standards for Restorative Justice’, he articulates three types of restorative justice standards while warning us not to tame innovation.

As a believer of individual empowerment and the founder of a charity that promotes community-led solutions for a better society, my question has always been ‘How can restorative justice, as a community born ethos (Daly and Imarrigeon 1998; Gavrielides 2012), enable the individual to have a genuine role in bringing fairness to society’. Following from this, ‘What is the role of government, academics and practitioners in facilitating this process’; not for their own ends, but for the individual, let that be the victim, the offender, their family, friends and their community.

Braithwaite also notes: ‘While it is good that we are now having debates on standards for restorative justice it is a dangerous debate. Accreditation for mediators that raises the spectre of a Western accreditation agency telling an Aboriginal elder that a centuries old restorative practice does not comply with the accreditation standards is a profound worry’ (2002).

And let me stress the importance of standards because I have been misquoted, not to my surprise.

In all my papers, I have stressed the risks that restorative justice brings. It is not a soft option. It entails pain; not just for the offender, but also the victim and their communities (Gavrielides 2013).

Implementing restorative justice in a difficult financial climate instantly brings up the question of cost and benefit. Although data on the financial viability of restorative justice are extremely limited, it somehow managed to convince that it is a cheaper option for governments. This presents restorative justice with a unique opportunity to establish itself as outcome focused practice that delivers better justice for all. Making claims that it costs less, however, is not the right way forward. Further research is needed to support this thin argument.

By definition, any government has an expiry date and this puts an obligation, but also political fears, that policy changes must be done quickly and cheaply. I am fearful that as restorative justice is being explored for its potential to bring about change that quick, ready-made packages will continue to be introduced. These will consequently harm its delivery in the long-term. Mainstreaming restorative justice on the cheap is not the answer.

If progress is to be made in assessing the outcomes of restorative justice projects and in finding innovative restorative practices, resources would be better spent on implementing well-designed projects with clearly defined aims and methods, and with evaluation built in from the start.

It appears that most innovative restorative justice practices are run in the community by voluntary and community sector organisations and groups (Marshall 1996, Johnstone 2002). Although this allows a considerable level of flexibility into the development and management of these schemes, it also adds a number of challenges. Voluntary and community projects are most of the times under-resourced and understaffed while most of the times are not seen by statisticians, criminal justice officials and governmental bodies as contributing to crime prevention.

Commentators have also stressed the important role of these projects in promoting a feeling of empowerment and belonging in community groups. Voluntary organisations help maintain a balance between community groups often feeling isolated and let down by public services and government. They establish communication channels between individuals and government bodies, and enable small and large minority groups to have a say in policymaking, legislation and regulation of the country’s affairs. The vast majority of their activity takes place at a local level, often addressing the needs of society’s most disadvantaged groups. Statistics also show that the public trusts these groups more than other criminal justice services. Wasn’t this the primary reason restorative justice was brought back? And by whom? It was by passionate practitioners and invididuals. Not large training and accreditation providers.