Restorative justice off the record

I have recently decided to give my doctoral thesis the silent treatment and through this blog post play the devil’s advocate in my own case. I’m afraid this has to sound a bit academic.

There is a lot about restorative justice in my thesis. Restorative justice (or simply RJ; translated into Polish as sprawiedliwość naprawcza) is an ‘umbrella concept’ that accommodates a variety of practices such as mediation, conferencing, sentencing circles and community panels. The overarching idea of RJ philosophy is to ‘bring together offender, victim, family, and (sometimes) the community to address what happened, how the parties were affected, and what positive steps the offender can take to make amends with the victim and the community’ (Rossner, 2008:1735). Restorative justice has become popular worldwide and gained its strength from the deficiencies and failures of the traditional justice systems.

The Polish context provides a unique set of social forces (as a former socialist, post-transformation and now one of the European Union member countries) that made me consider Poland as a particularly interesting case to examine the preconditions for restorative justice practices that were introduced in the ‘90s. In the form of Victim Offender Mediation (VOM) RJ was introduced at the time of significant political, economic and social changes that took place after 1989 – at this time Poland was concentrating on being perceived as a sovereign country by joining international organizations and implementing recommended legal standards. It was apparent to Polish policy-makers that repressive and harsh communist criminal policies had to be replaced by internationally recognized standards so that Poland could join the international community (see Krajewski, 2004). Although there has been a lot of attention given to the condition of Polish mediation, the practice has been rather of limited use.

And here are some further thoughts that suggest why it is (and will be) so difficult for RJ to succeed in the Polish context.

One of the reasons why the welcome given to RJ in a specific socio-political and economic context might be cold is the fact that the encounter between victims and offenders still happens within the criminal justice settings. And as Shapland and colleagues (2006) have noted restorative justice situated within the criminal justice system means an uneasy relationship between the two. Although VOM serves as an alternative measure that aims at diverting criminal cases from the court process, the backstage insight in the Polish context is not only that lay people (potential litigants) have no significant interest in mediation but also ask their lawyers to accompany them in mediation meetings. Unsurprisingly, people know little about mediation but even if provided with certain amount of information the fear of the informality of mediation can make them feel suspicious about the intervention and as a result turn to their lawyers. Then, lawyers may be unwilling to suggest mediation as it involves losing money, and this contributes to some further tension between mediators and lawyers. Nonetheless what is extremely interesting in the Polish context is that some lawyers become mediators; some mediators emphasize the need for learning the legal jargon in order to satisfactory run a mediation session; and some mediators introduce themselves as ‘court’ mediators in order to get respect among people referred to mediation. Contrary to the ‘Western experience’ with RJ practices, having established very low confidence in the Polish criminal justice system, it is interesting to note that this does not increase support for out of court solutions among lay Polish people.

Secondly, apology is one of the restorative values that help to evaluate the restorativeness of justice processes (Braithwaite, 2002). Although this argument immediately reminds me of Elton John’s song ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ it also triggers the question whether apology has exactly the same meaning in every society? Apology should be seen as an act that comprises of a number of elements that can again be culture/setting- specific. Although the range of opinions given about apology by my study participants varied from it being important to it not being necessary, overall the practice of apologizing did not lie at the heart of participants’ views as far as mediation is concerned. Does it mean that Polish people do not value apology? Perhaps they do not know how to apologize? These observations made me think that perhaps the act of apology should have its own (Polish) form. In research on speech acts Wierzbicka (1985) demonstrates that Polish linguistic norms prefer directness and this is deeply embedded in the Polish culture, as compared with English ones. And this view was also echoed in the accounts of my study participants who frequently expressed the preference of actions rather than words. Some of them suggested a handshake as a better sign of reconciliation.

Lastly, exploring the viability of RJ in the Polish context it turned out that there is a risk of seeing harm as something ‘calculable’ and mediation as a way to decide on financial compensation rather than anything else which does not necessarily reflect the ideals of restorative justice. And this theme is a great example of the fact that mediation sessions do not happen in a social vacuum but they are actually embedded in the economic, social and historical context. As Walklate (2005:174) has argued some socio-economic conditions might facilitate restorative justice, while others might not. Economic dislocation, unemployment and deprivation may contribute to punitive attitudes towards criminals since they serve as convenient scapegoats during times of economic distress (Hartnagel & Templeton, 2012:457). Based on the narratives of study participants, there is a possibility that in the Polish context mediation might provide an opportunity for the ‘channelling of economic insecurities/financial needs into a businesslike encounter’. This might be a consequence of years of so-called ‘wild years of transition’; difficult transformation from socialist and centrally planned policies into a market society, additionally stimulated by sudden exposure to free media coverage. Although this transformation enabled Poland to meet the EU economic conditions, the process introduced previously unknown in the society phenomenon like privatization, unemployment, and inequality of income.  Interestingly for my research, the consequences of those changes are vividly echoed in people’s perceptions about what a mediation encounter should involve.

The Polish case again proves that the viability of RJ practices goes much beyond the issues of logistic base, or relevant policies and laws. The success of RJ interventions depends on economic conditions, political settings, as well as on linguistic norms. One thing I know for sure is that at the beginning of my PhD journey when I was considering how viable RJ is in a post-socialist, post-transformation, EU member society, like Poland, I didn’t envisage that in my analysis I would go this far and deep. What I know now is that restorative justice research offers a window deep into a society’s values and maladies that significantly shape the preconditions for restorative interventions.



Braithwaite, J. (2002) Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hartnagel & Templeton (2012) Emotions about crime and attitudes to punishment. Punishment & Society October 2012 14: 452-474.

Krajewski, K. (2004) Crime in Criminal Justice in Poland. European Journal of Criminology, 1(3): 377-407.

Rossner, M. (2008) Healing Victims and Offenders and Reducing Crime: A Critical Assessment of Restorative Justice Practice and Theory’ Sociology Compass, 2 (6): 1734-1749.

Shapland, J., Atkinson, A., Atkinson, H., Chapman, B., Colledge, E., Dignan, J., Howes, M., Johnstone, J., Robinson, G. and Sorsby, A. (2006) Situating restorative justice within criminal justice. Theoretical Criminology,10: 505-532.

Walkate S. (2005) Researching restorative justice: politics, policy and process. Critical Criminology, 13, 165-179.

Wierzbicka, A. (1985) Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: The Semantics of Human Interaction. Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin.






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