Restorative potential of unpaid work

In my previous post, I discussed the penal function of unpaid work and argued that Poland may be considered as a society with certain historical receptiveness to work. The intention for this piece is to present my argument that lay people’s confidence in work creates a certain space to explore restorative dimension to it – a finding that might indeed be of assistance to the viability of restorative justice in post-socialist countries and elsewhere.

In so doing, I will briefly refer to a couple of my participants’ quotations to illustrate this argument further. Restorative justice has long been known as a process of respectful dialogue, where offenders are held accountable for their actions, harm is repaired and offenders are reintegrated into society (Zehr & Mika, 1998). Interestingly, in my doctoral research it was unpaid work that was frequently discussed as a vehicle that could enhance remorse and activate the feeling of guilt among offenders. Work as a better means to redeem one’s wrongdoings was for example articulated in the following interview with a 66-year old female:

I would also prefer them to work. Wherever there are any needs, shortfalls, where there is no money to finance some public works, they should work there, ho-hum, whoever can afford to pay, won’t feel the restriction. And the ones who can’t afford to pay, so to speak, it’s a bit of a vicious circle for them and what next? How to force him to …? He got a fine but doesn’t pay, he is sent to prison and what? He should get a chance to rehabilitate himself through some community work. There are so many needs, for example in orphanages, you can arrange a lot of things, it is just important that they work and become helpful. [I51/I]

One of the important features of restorative justice is the expressions of remorse that are essential components of any restorative practice. This observation was made in an interview with a 20-year old female student who indicated that work can indeed enhance remorse in offenders, leading to their reintegration into society:

First thing, unpaid work means a lesson in remorse and cooperation with other people. That’s what I think. [P22/I]

Below, the same female participant gave an example of child maintenance arrears (see my post on the indebted Polish fathers) and illustrated in her interview how work perceived as community payback could contribute to a father’s realization of his parental financial negligence:

Child maintenance arrears … I would consider various scenarios, why is he not paying and so on. However, what I think is …If this person really doesn’t feel obliged to … doesn’t recognise that it is a child, and is not paying because he doesn’t want to pay, then I think it would be good to offer unpaid work, it should be ordered that this person needs to do something for the community. Alternatively, this person could be obliged to show interest in the child, because it doesn’t happen often I think with this type of case. This perhaps would affect him somehow, he would notice that actually it is his own child, and this child needs this and that, maybe then something would change. Alternatively, if someone doesn’t have money, then unpaid work so he could get back on his feet to pay it off or something. [P22/I]

Another interesting outcome of the data analysis was the participants’ view that work might activate a feeling of guilt, and so break the denial of responsibility among offenders – something known as neutralization techniques. These techniques were described by Sykes & Matza (1957), who argued that most delinquency is based on justifications for crime that protect the individual from self-blame and the blame of others after the wrongdoing. When there is no disapproval from the social environment, these rationalisations are lightly neutralised and the individual can engage in further delinquency. A similar understanding of the issue appeared in a focus group with young study participants living in an urban area, in which work was seen as an avenue for the offender to realise the consequences of his actions and, as a consequence, prevent any denial:

AM: Fine. Those of you who indicated the second option as the better one [in relation to a case scenario], so what was it exactly that appealed to you? Was it that he acknowledged his guilt, that he wrote an apology letter, or that he would get a financial penalty because he agreed to compensate all the damage, or that he would do unpaid work? What was it …//

P21: That he acknowledged his guilt, and that he agreed to cover damages.

P24: Essentially the fact that he would compensate financially, and that he would work for a bit as this way he could feel that he had done something wrong. If he apologised and only gave it back, that wouldn’t be enough. [FGUY]

My argument that the confidence in [unpaid] work might reflect a certain potential for restorative justice in the Polish context is, however, contrary to some of the restorative literature, which suggests that there is a risk of branding community work as a restorative practice (see for example Bussu, 2016). Nevertheless, due to the ingrained nature of, and strong support for, community service in my study, I align myself with Fellegi (2010) who argues that in Central Eastern European societies, community service can be seen as the basis for further development of restorative justice. According to Fellegi, community work has a more established structure in those countries; what is needed is to strengthen the process conceptually and provide relevant practitioners with a better understanding of the restorative concept in order to convey restorative ideas through community service. Such an approach would also reflect Daly’s (2002) argument that the introduction of restorative justice in various contexts should incorporate degrees of ‘cultural appropriateness’. Only such an understanding of restorative justice will make restorative practices flexible towards and accommodating of cultural differences.


Bussu, A. (2016) In need of a cultural shift to promote restorative justice in Southern Europe. Contemporary Justice Review, 19(4), 479-503.

Daly, K. (2002) Restorative Justice, The Real Story. Punishment and Society, 4(1), 55-79.

Fellegi, B. (2010) The Restorative Approach in Practice: Models in Europe and in Hungary. European Best Practices of Restorative Justice in the Criminal Procedure. Conference Publication. Budapest: Ministry of Justice and Law Enforcement of the Republic of Hungary.

Sykes, G.M. & Matza, D. (1957) Techniques of Neutralization. A Theory of Delinquency. American Sociological Review, 22(6), 664-670.

Zehr, H. & Mika, H. (1998) Fundamental concepts of restorative justice. Contemporary Justice Review, 1, 47-55.

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