On the morning of July 7th 2015 I boarded a train and headed for Leeds to attend the inaugural conference of the Community of Restorative Researchers. It has been a bit over a year since Ian Marder, a doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds, set up this interdisciplinary network dedicated to all who research and practice restorative approaches to justice.
Just as a very brief recap – restorative justice (RJ), discussed at a number of different levels and disciplines, has become a popular concept that critiques the traditional interpretation of crime and punishment. Restorative justice can be defined as ‘bringing 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, 2008:173). One of my favourite academic observations is that restorative justice as an ‘umbrella concept’ accommodates a variety of practices e.g. victim offender mediation, conferencing, sentencing circles and community panels (Shapland et al. 2006:506). These practices have been introduced either top-down or bottom-up in diverse socio-economic and political contexts, in one form or another and in majority integrated at different stages of traditional justice procedures (pre and post sentencing).
The purpose of the Leeds conference was to gather the network members and discuss the role of state and non-state actors in developing, delivering and regulating restorative justice in contemporary Britain. The following conference speakers contributed to an interesting exchange of viewpoints: Jon Collins(Restorative Justice Council), Ali Gohar (Just Peace Initiatives), Andrew Hancock (Darlington Neighbourhood Resolution), Prof. Jonathan Doak (Durham University), Nicola Preston (International Institute of Restorative Practices), Becky Beard (Restorative Gloucestershire), and Deborah Mitchell (RJ Working CIC & University of Exeter).
RJ as a Beautiful Mess
Right from the start it was established that restorative justice has become a fast developing field in the UK – a field that is comprised of diverse interventions being delivered by various actors. While such RJ variety has been argued by Albert Dzur (2011:368) as the concept that simply ‘comes in many shapes and sizes’, Ian Marder came up with a fascinating metaphor and compared RJ to a ‘beautiful mess’. This allegory not only set the tone for the conference and RJ analysis but will also be used as a framework for this blog post.
The beauty of RJ can be delineated into multiple perspectives, however, for the purpose of this paper I will select the ones that were directly echoed in the accounts of conference panellists. Firstly, the restorative justice movement was built on the grounds that conflicts (offences) shall be returned to the people directly affected by the crime. Such perspective on RJ originated in the theory of ‘stolen conflicts’ developed by an outstanding Norwegian scholar – Nils Christie – to whom the conference was dedicated. Secondly, as rightly pointed out by Jon Collins, RJ has been championed by individuals who strongly believe in RJ. Having listened and talked to a number of practitioners at the conference, I shall argue that their beautiful attitude towards RJ is the most mirrored in their humbleness and ability to acknowledge the limits of RJ.
It is believed that when RJ works it can result in beautiful outcomes, therefore one of my favourite conference moments was when RJ practitioners were asked what they thought they restore while facilitating RJ encounters. The answers ranged from ‘understanding’, ‘damage’, ‘harm’, ‘relationships’, ‘health’ to ‘balance’. The one that caught my attention the most was that RJ practitioners should only provide an opportunity for people to restore things themselves. This answer was absolutely and utterly beautiful.
A whole mess of danger
Nonetheless, the bulk of the conference discussion concentrated on the challenges that RJ is facing right now. Unfortunately, such variety of RJ provision often translates into a lack of clarity and even the risk of RJ misuse. This part of the debate made me question whether we should still seek some sort of RJ purity or should we just simply learn how to manage the ‘mess’ that comes with RJ? Professor Jonathan Doak stressed that although clarity is needed, being overly prescriptive as to how RJ should be implemented is not good either. I also found some comfort in the suggestion that such clarity could be achieved through transparent explanations from RJ service providers as to how they understand RJ themselves.
All discussants agreed that collaboration is still the key approach in RJ delivery and developing a ‘collaboration language’ would help to provide transparent and skills-based RJ interventions. At this point it is worth recalling Nicola Preston’s recommendation about RJ leadership – surprisingly little discussed subject in the field but of great importance. Nonetheless, having recognized the current climate of cuts to the English criminal justice system, Jon Collins underlined that the increased competitiveness between RJ service providers affects the viability of multi-agency collaboration. It was also observed that there is an increased risk of postcode lottery, and as a consequence, patchy RJ implementation across the country.
A question from the audience triggered another issue – restorative justice as a solution for domestic violence incidents. Such RJ application has been an exceptionally thorny subject heavily criticised predominantly by feminist scholars who claim that this approach is highly inappropriate for domestic abuse cases. Concerns regard both perpetrator and community involvement in the restorative justice process. While the former issue touches upon victim safety, the latter includes a risk of victim-blaming. In other words, the feminist critique of using restorative justice when dealing with domestic abuse cases is predominantly based on women’s safety, offender accountability and the politics of gender (Ptacek, 2010). The battered women’s movement has achieved a lot in promoting women’s expectations and this has translated into increased attention in mainstream criminal justice systems, not necessarily RJ interventions. Therefore, as far as domestic violence is concerned, RJ may be facing the chill wind for quite some time.
Beauty and the Beast
The presence of communities in a restorative practice creates a chance for collective local responses that lead to a collective experience of conflict resolution. Unsurprisingly then, writings of restorative justice are frequently set against the communitarian philosophy in which individual behaviours are products of community ties. The role of communities was also discussed at the conference. While Andrew Hancock emphasized how crucial is the role of community in the RJ process per se, Jon Collins underlined the importance of public awareness and perception of RJ in general.
Nonetheless, what was also noted at the conference was that communities can exclude and punish. This remark resonates with how the public is often perceived in the field of penal theories – as a bloodthirsty, mistaken and punitive Beast. Therefore the tendency to refer to the views of communities is frequently argued as a characteristic of ‘populist punitiveness’. Based on the existing evidence, it would be misleading to say that people’s views are definitively punitive. Mike Hough for example (1996:193) describes ‘muddle-minded people’ who want tough deterrent sentencing in order to reduce crime but also restorative sanctions as a means to punish the offender.
It has to be remembered that RJ has been introduced in different socio-political contexts to different publics/communities. While Andrew Hancock interestingly pointed out that the British culture is a risk-averse society that does not like facing conflicts, what I argue in my doctoral thesis is that Polish society fear the informality of RJ to such extent that Polish people may prefer the provision of RJ to be closely interwoven with the Polish criminal justice system. Despite the fact that I also do recognize the importance of communities within the RJ premises, one should not expect much of the communities as the way they welcome RJ solutions depends on broader socio-political settings.
Without a doubt, the inaugural conference of the Community of Restorative Researchers was a highly successful and inspirational event. On the train back home I was checking my court assignments for the next day and imagined how beautifully it would be to interpret in the restorative justice rather than court settings. One day, perhaps.
Dzur, A. (2011) Restorative justice and democracy: fostering public accountability for criminal justice.Contemporary Justice Review, 14(4), 367-381.
Hough, M. (1996) People Talking about Punishment. The Howard Journal, 35(3), 191-214.
Ptacek, J. (2010) Resisting Co-optation. Three Feminist Challenges to Antiviolence Work, in: Ptacek, J. (eds.) Restorative Justice and Violence Against Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rossner, M. (2008) Healing Victims and Offenders and Reducing Crime: A Critical Assessment of Restorative Justice Practice and Theory. Sociology Compass, 2 (6) pp.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.