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Beyond restorative justice

Written by  Richard Garside (27/11/11)

To those looking for non punitive alternatives to the standard criminal justice penalties - prison, community sentence, fine - restorative justice carries a lot of appeal. It supposedly enables both victim and offender to reflect on the impact of a crime, for the victim to gain redress and for both to achieve a certain degree of 'closure'. But while talking and resolution might be preferable to punishment and vengeance, is restorative justice the answer?

Restorative justice comes in a variety of different forms. One approach involves a meeting of the victim and offender. For the victim, it gives him or her a chance to tell the offender about the impact of the offence. As well as offering some element of catharsis on the part of the victim, the argument is that restorative justice can bring home to the offender the impact of his or her actions. The victim might also receive an apology from the offender, something that can have a big impact on both parties. Alongside these direct forms of restorative justice other, more mediated, versions are possible: a letter of apology for example.

As an approach that encourages talking and resolution over punishment and vengeance, restorative justice has much to recommend it. It may not be for everyone though. A victim of petty vandalism or burglary might be open to meeting the offender. A survivor of a violent and traumatic assault perhaps less so. The offender too needs to be open to engaging in the process. An unwilling participant is unlikely to deliver the desired result, as a recent example illustrates.

But if talking and resolution is a good thing, what other models are available? The recent My Story project by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is a case in point. Drawing on in-depth discussions with young people who as children were convicted of serious acts of violence, My Story presents a series of vivid, disturbing and challenging first person accounts of violence and trauma they themselves experienced.

These stories were made possible through a series of in-depth conversations between the young people and one of my colleagues, Dr Roger Grimshaw. The conversations were open-ended. The young people were invited to share and reflect on their experiences in a therapeutic, rather than restorative, framework. There was no expectation, for instance, that the conversations might result in an apology being proffered to the victim. Indeed greater self-understanding, and enhanced insight into the roots of violence, was the purpose of exercise, not the offer of an apology or feelings of remorse.

Given the profound victimisation these young people had themselves endured prior to inflicting violence on others, it is in any case worth asking in what way it might make sense, morally or otherwise, to expect them to apologise for their offences? At the very least, if they were to apologise for their actions, would they not equally deserve an apology from those who violated them so grievously as part of a collective acknowledgement of fault?

There must also be many situations where a victim would like to talk about the harm they experienced, but not with the person who victimised them. If the value for victims in restorative justice is in a therapeutic outcome, why not offer a unambiguously therapeutic service, rather than a difficult, potentially stressful, confrontation with an individual who has violated them? If the purpose of restorative justice is to contribute to the rehabilitation of the offender, why assume that the victim has a role to play in this process?

In the face of violence and victimisation, talking and reflecting are valuable and important. Restorative justice appears to facilitate this, and at lower cost than traditional criminal justice sanctions. As a result it has gained increased support over recent years. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice Nick Herbert gave a speech in support of restorative justice earlier this year. More recently the Criminal Justice Alliance has published a pamphlet calling for its much wider application.

But whatever its merits, restorative justice remains relatively narrow in its focus: facilitating a transaction between victim and offender in which an apology can be proffered and heard. What is needed is a broader vision of the role that a range of talking therapies - such as counselling, psychological treatments and psychotherapy - might play in repairing the hurt and damage experienced by victims and offenders alike. It is time to start thinking beyond restorative justice.

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