This year, I was fortunate enough to spend restorative justice week in Canada. Initiated by the Correctional Service Canada (CSC), restorative justice week has been celebrated annually across Canada since 1996 and is now taking international dimensions. It is recognized every third week of November to celebrate restorative justice practitioners and volunteers especially those working in the community. It is also an opportunity to talk and learn about restorative justice, an ethos that was brought back in the 1970s in the form of mediation, conferencing, circles, sentencing boards and other local initiatives. As I look back at the intense last seven days, I feel compelled to share some of the feelings and thoughts that have changed me in the most unexpected way.
I have been a restorative justice “student” for the last 13 years and despite my enthusiasm with the prospect of instilling something fresh into a broken criminal justice system, I remained objective. Most of my public speaking and academic articles would start in the same way: “The focus of researchers should not be on the superiority of restorative justice, but on the development of its processes and principles”. It is true that we have more evidence and writings on restorative justice than any other justice policy, and yet it is far from being used in the way that its proponents hope. 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, 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.
After being welcomed by two of the most inspiring restorativist women I have ever met, Dr. Zellerer and Prof. Morrison, my week started with meeting a dozen assistant Deputy Ministers, currently working on a provincial grand plan to reform and improve the criminal justice system. Following the August 2012 Geoff Cowper QC report “A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century”, the Minister of Justice committed to bringing change. I left the meeting with a strong sense of hope, but with a bitter after taste of reality. Most of the questioning was around savings, and what one would call “the business case for restorative justice”. After quoting the usual thin evidence, I was quick enough to come back to the question and address it by saying: “If we are trying to replace an apple that costs 5p with an orange that costs 4p and which promises the much needed vitamin C, then we have already lost. A true commitment will show when we implement changes that will improve long term outcomes”. But how naïve is this statement?
My answer was not evidence based. It was a reaction of what I am experiencing from what is happening back home in the UK. Only a few months after our coalition government took office, they announced their intentions for “Breaking the Cycle” of offending and re-offending by reforming the criminal justice system. This brought restorative justice back onto the policy agenda. A number of ministerial statements were made while millions of pounds have already been spent, or have been committed, for training prison staff and police officers on restorative justice. I expressed my scepticism, alerting people to the lessons of the old when the Labour Government launched its own public consultation, which then resulted in their 2003 plan for introducing restorative justice in the adult criminal justice system. Billions of pounds were spent on various research pilots, a “restorative justice unit” within the Home Office, conferences and training. But restorative justice was never put forward as a consistent and available option for victims, offenders and their communities.
Therefore, I was surprised when I was asked to join a national restorative justice steering group that was put together by our current Ministry of Justice to construct a strategy that will support a well-intended legislation that would introduce restorative justice at every stage of the criminal justice system. With much hesitation and gratitude, IARS, the research centre that I direct, participated in this project, which concluded its work on the first day of restorative justice week. The new strategy “Restorative Justice Action Plan for the Criminal Justice System” was then announced.
My heart jumped when the Justice Minister noted: “I want restorative justice to become something that victims feel comfortable and confident requesting at any stage of the criminal justice system. But this process has to be led by the victim and be on their terms. If it doesn’t work for the victim, then it should not happen”. These are not words that you get to hear often. There is a growing acknowledgement that the individual … the victim, their family … are the key to making restorative justice, or I should just say justice, happen. The victims’ movement has fought long and hard for this.
But there is also another reason for this development. As the UK, along with 25 other countries have to accept the supremacy of EU law, a new EC Directive has just passed, enhancing protection measures for victims. Restorative justice and the development of appropriate standards and protocols feature prominently in the Directive’s articles. But it is not all-good news for celebration. In fact, I humbly and with much hesitation withdrew my membership to the national steering group as I felt that the proposed structure and action points for the implementation of the strategy and proposed legislation were top down, ignoring what I consider to be the heart and soul of restorative justice i.e. its community born and community led ethos. In an open letter to the responsible minister I published my concerns. The Minister was not only kind enough to write back and offer me the option of dialogue, but also agreed to host a launch for the new EC funded action programme that we are about to start, aiming to set up and pilot victim-led standards and training for the implementation of restorative justice Europe-wide.
I have great hopes and fears for this project as a platform is finally created for victims and users of restorative justice to speak up and re-shape what, us professionals, have done in their name.
Going back to my restorative justice week in Canada, on my way back from Victoria I met a family whose daughter was murdered and had agreed to meet one of the two offenders who had been convicted with the crime. The mother said to me: “Too often people assume that victims want to see their offenders locked in prison, playing video games and learning how to become better criminals. We want accountability, and to understand what happened; we want to see them doing something good”. I also met another victim who suffered from child sexual abuse and violence within gangs. He said: “To all those who hurt me in my childhood, I send them lots of love and I hope they have had at least some of the opportunities to heal that I had … How could I ever forgive myself without seeing them as wounded people too”? These statements made me even more hopeful and fearful for our victim-led EU project!
My week continued with a panel debate at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where retired judge Barry Stuart, Professor Brenda Morrison and Alison MacPhail patiently listened to my lessons from home, and then opened it up for debate with the very well informed audience. But what has turned out to be the highlight of my week was my sharing through a circle that Dr. Zellerer facilitated as part of my presentation for the AGM of North Shore Restorative Justice, a community-based service for Vancouver. Staffed only with two paid members, the centre deals with over 100 cases per year stretching from shop lifting to serious youth violence, complex cases and group offending. With a turnover of just $100,000 and with the support of many volunteers, I was thinking that maybe it is them that the dozen Ministers I met should have listened to for an evidence based “business case” for restorative justice. With less than $1000 per case and a comparison of £50,000 for keeping one offender in adult prisons and £148,000 in juvenile institutions, my case was rested.
But was it? As governments around the world take interest in restorative justice and set up new strategies, legislation and funds to promote it, their role must be clear. Restorative justice is not a product that can be mainstreamed and rolled out nationally. It exists in small neighborhoods, in homes, churches, schools, tents, humid mediation centres and, yes sometimes, in big fancy offices. Identifying central government organisations or the government’s usual suspects, big national bodies and celebrity restorativists that can manage and indeed control how restorative justice is rolled out is not only a waste of public money, but also an insult to the work that so many people did and will continue to do despite being excluded.
As we were going around the circle, I came to realize that every single person who practised restorative justice had a story to share. A story of pain as a victim or a story of regret as an ex-offender. And this is what makes restorative justice special. It is the community’s way of understanding and dealing with conflict. This is also a feeling that was shared among the 21 prisoners who attended a circle with me at Ferndale prison. Most of them were serving a life sentence.
“Restorative justice is done by kids, by volunteers with no money, by everyone who feels responsible enough to do something for their community … How can you expect those people to register so that they can practise?” one volunteer facilitator ex-offender said. Prof. John Braithwaite, one of the leading names in restorative justice academia, agrees: “The debate on standards for restorative justice is much needed, but how can you ask an Elder to put their name onto a list so that they can practise”?
And let me stress the importance of standards because I have been misquoted, to my surprise. In all my papers, I have stressed the risks that restorative justice brings and need for protection. It is not a soft option. It entails pain; not just for the offender, but also the victim and their communities. This was my key contribution in the lecture that I was very honoured to have been asked to give by Simon Fraser Universtiy in memory of Prof. Liz Elliott,a true prophet and a believer of the kindness that we all have and that connects us. Despite the rain and the fact that it must have been an anti-climax considering that the first Liz Elliott memorial lecture was given by the grandfather of restorative justice, Professor Howard Zehr, a strong and informed audience turned up to hear me talking about “Reconciling Restorative Justice with Imprisonment”.
I felt compelled to respond to Liz’s vision:“Restorative Justice must be more than a programme within the current system – it must be a new paradigm for responding to harm and conflict with its own philosophical and theoretical framework. Facilitating this shift requires a re-thinking of the assumptions around punishment and justice, placing emphasis instead on values and relationships”. What I said didn't sit well with everyone, but we had a good and healthy debate chaired by Prof. Robert Gordon and followed by a commentary by the author of “the hottest report” in town, Geoff Cowper QC.
By definition, any government has an expiry date and this puts an obligation, but also political fears, that changes are a risky business. I am fearful that as restorative justice is being explored for its potential to bring about change that quick, ready-made packages are introduced. These will consequently harm its delivery in the long-term. Mainstreaming restorative justice is not the answer. Providing 3 day training packages to police officers, probation staff and prison guards will not deliver the restorative vision. Funding the usual suspects to control a top down register for people who are practising restorative justice will not increase public confidence; it will destroy it. It will also alienate the Big Society of volunteers giving their time to keep local justice balanced.
If governments are truly committed to promoting restorative justice, then they need to work closer with the communities that create the various models through which this abstract umbrella notion of restorative justice is delivered … whether it is called mediation, circles, conferencing … Try to mould and standardise restorative justice and all you will achieve is its McDonalisation. Its diversity and ability to deliver equity and fairness at a local level, its creativity and innovation will all die out. In his introductory letter, Scott Harris Associate Assistant Commissioner at CSC announced the theme of restorative justice week as “Diverse Needs; Unique Responses”. He said: “This theme recognizes that restorative justice is an approach that addresses the various needs of people impacted by crime and conflict … Restorative justice processes are highly adaptable to different people, environments, and systems as the identified needs of the people involved help formulate the unique response that can contribute to a person’s sense of safety, justice and well-being”. Commissioner Harris knows that this is due to the commitment of local practitioners and not because of top down structures that mainstream a community-led practice.
After this week, I am no longer as interested in carrying on being a student of restorative justice. I want to be a student of the community restorativists who make this community-born and community-led ethos a practical reality. We can all benefit from joining their circle.