Race equality & the paradox of restorative justice

Some argue that one of the reasons that restorative justice was brought back into the modern world of policy and practice is the growing disappointment of our criminal justice systems. These writings tend to quote the increasing incarceration rates, recidivism statistics, the rising costs of justice and the inability to protect the public from current and new forms of criminality. Therefore, it is surprising why race hasn't featured more prominently in the restorative justice discourse. I will call this the ‘paradox of restorative justice’.

The lack of restorative justice literature on race worries me, and I have written elsewhere that if the restorative justice movement does not address this gap in theory and practice it will soon face its demise.

We now have enough evidence to safely claim that one of the groups that are let down the most by our criminal justice systems is black and other racially under-represented groups (Kang, 2005; Dorling, 2011). The international literature on disproportionality (e.g. prison population, stop and search, arrests and sentencing patterns), race relations between offenders and criminal justice agents (police, judges, prison and probation staff), the appropriateness of interventions and issues around explicit and implicit racism is rich. Since restorative justice is brought back as a reaction to a failing criminal justice system, a newcomer to restorative justice would expect that its first normative promises and aspirations should have been for those who are let down the most. But as this article will show, the criminal justice system and the policies, laws, institutions and structures that support it do not exist in a vacuum. They are informed by our subconscious and sometimes overt bias against various social categories. It is also not surprising that those who have been named as fathers, mothers and grandfathers of restorative justice are mostly white. This should not be read as an attack against the impressive work that has been carried out by passionate researchers, practitioners and campaigners.

Bringing race into the restorative justice debate for research, policy and practice is a much-needed and belated task with many challenges. This is for at least three reasons, which may indeed provide an explanation and context for the aforementioned paradox of restorative justice.