Restorative justice, self-indulgence and the trust we've lost
Happy International Restorative Justice Week 2017! It has become somewhat of a tradition to write my annual thoughts on restorative justice on the Sunday preceding our international celebrations! (For 2016 here, 2015 blog here, 2014 blog here, 2012 blog here). Every year, we learn something new about restorative justice, a concept that seems to be spreading without barriers or limitations. Before I expose my annual observations, a reminder and a disclaimer that I am the only person responsible for my views, which do not represent any organisation that I serve, work for or have come in contact with.
There can be no doubt that public trust in governments and their institutions has been declining. This blog does not offer the ground to present the reasons for this decline, which have been observed and studied by many over the last three decades. Justice and criminal justice institutions have not been exempted from this process. Courts, the police, probation, prosecution and all related services do not exist in a vacuum. They are developed and function within the societies that they are meant to serve. If they are structured within disempowering democracies, then the experience of the user will be one of disappointment.
This decline of trust is also very much linked with the perception and experience of justice and equality (or inequality). We do not need scientific evidence to conclude that the criminal justice system has flaws. We have been experiencing these flaws for many decades through its performance, costs and the feeling of safety that is meant to generate for everyone. Although the majority of the public do not engage in academic readings about facts and figures on wealth distribution, their living reality is what drives their fear and anxiety about justice its current system, which subsequently leads to disengagement and apathy.
For example, we know that despite the economic downturn, the powerful became more powerful, and the powerless increased in numbers. According to the 2017 Global Wealth Report, the wealth of the richest increased from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017. On the other hand, the poor became poorer, with the world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults having assets of less than $10,000. Collectively these people, who account for 70% of the world’s working age population, account for just 2.7% of global wealth. Shockingly, the globe’s richest 1% owns half the world’s wealth. These millionaires – who account for 0.7% of the world’s adult population – control 46% of total global wealth.
Concurrently with this decline in trust and justice performance globally, there has been a rise of community voice and action. In a globalised world where the internet, social media and borderless continents define how we receive and send information, the notion of community had to redefine itself. It is no longer a mere place – it is a sense and feeling of belonging, and despite its lack of resources, the notion dared to claim ownership or at least demand joint custody of justice and criminal justice. This voice has been getting louder and now, the powerful have no other option, but to listen.
Opportune times for restorative justice?
Restorative justice resurfaced with the claim that it can empower communities to pursue a better sense and experience of justice. Many passionate practitioners reading this know that this claim is a tall order and that despite the hard work delivering a genuine restorative encounter is rare. But it is all about what we can prove, and indeed the emerging evidence suggests practice can be promising in all sorts of areas, even the contested ones such as domestic violence, hate crimes and child sexual abuse.
But my criticism is not about what we didn't do as a movement. My concern is about what we are doing. Independently of where we live, during this international week, we will join celebration parties and ceremonies, meetings and conferences to talk about our fantastic work. We might even put victims and offenders on platforms to tell their stories as testimonies of how well restorative justice is doing. We will accept or pursue praise, grants, acknowledgement from the officials, and we will suggest new projects that can improve the criminal justice system experience.
As we do so, I wonder how many of us have become part of the power structures that the very concept of restorative justice aims to balance against individual and community voice. For yet another year, the core theme of International Restorative Justice week is "innovation". But I doubt how innovative we allow our movement to be if we continue to outstrip it of its political-ethical potential, and endorse hierarchical relationships.
I am not an abolitionist and I (try) to live in the real world of funding cuts, competitive markers and policies driven by politics and vested interests. But I am also someone who is driven by values and wants to believe in something bigger than ourselves. I found this in the shared vision of all those who pursue fairness not for their own ends, but for others. Whether we call this battle restorative justice, informal justice or pink elephants is irrelevant. What is relevant is when we champion concepts such as restorative justice or self-declare as 'restorativists', we do so for those who are let down the most by the system. For example, why are we not talking about race or gender inequality within the movement, and where is the research on power imbalances in restorative justice practices?
We have flaws
Restorative justice, for all its goods and promises, has flaws like any other human construct. Yes, some may believe that it is spirited and guided by God, driven by Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Judaic and so on values. Nonetheless, it is a construct – the question that remains unaddressed is whether its flaws are as bad as those of the existing criminal justice system. And maybe this question is not as straightforward as it first appears. For example, which elements of restorative justice are not as bad as those of the criminal justice system? Do these relate to certain types of normative claims? Do they relate to practice and certain types of cases or offenders? Do they relate to finances and charging less the public purse while achieving better rates for victim satisfaction and recidivism?
As you give your speeches this week, please do not claim that you have the answers to the aforementioned questions. You do not, and your audience will know. If we truly believe in the restorative justice movement, lets learn to proceed with caution and responsibility. Lets remind ourselves our original values, truths and intentions. I am grateful to the practitioners (especially the volunteers) who keep the fire burning, the parties in conflict who have led on restorative processes and all those who work hard for a better justice system.
Free resources on restorative justice and more here
Daily blogs during International Restorative Justice Week by the IARS International Institute here
 The report (eight edition) is published by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, and it analyses wealth held by 4.8 billion adults across the globe, from the least affluent to the wealthiest individuals,.