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Restorative Justice in the British Parliament

Last week, I was called to give oral evidence before the House of Commons' Justice Committee on the effectiveness of restorative justice following the latest policy, legislative and institutional reforms in Britain. Among the Terms of Reference of the Inquiry was the investigation of how well the government has performed since its Restorative Justice Action Plan 2014 and the billions of pounds it invested in it. The public session involved six individuals all of whom had submitted written evidence alongside an impressive list of many others.

First, I must make two disclaimers. I write this blog not as a representative of any organisation, but as my own voice, and as a student of restorative justice. Second, I do not write without passion. But I hope that I do write with truthfulness and with evidence.

Not long ago, I wrote "Where is Restorative Justice Heading" providing evidence that a centralised and top-down vision of restorative justice was pushed by the current administration. I also wrote about the "MacDonaldisation of a community-born and community-led practice".

I am not a practitioner. So, my evidence came from a number of victims, offenders and restorative justice practitioners. Therefore, in my written submission to the House of Commons, I merely reiterated what I had said many times before. "Restorative justice was reborn not out of formal structures and legislation, but of voluntary action by enthusiastic and dedicated practitioners from around the world" (Gavrielides, 2007). Disrespect this history, and no matter how much money is thrown into new policies and laws, restorative justice will speak only when communities want it to speak. How can you force victims to participate?

I must admit that I was surprised by the invitation as all my fellow witnesses are open advocates of restorative justice (either in practice, training provision, policy or campaigning). I, on the other hand, have been rather mundane in my approach to restorative justice as I keep repeating that “The focus of researchers should not be on the superiority of restorative justice, but on the development of its processes and principles” (Gavrielides 2007; 2008; 2012; 2013; 2015).

As I was asked by the Committee why I expressed concerns that there is not enough evidence to claim that restorative justice is more financially beneficial than the current criminal justice system, the harsh reality of what drives public policy and legislative reforms hit me. Despite my (reserved) answer, which I tried to base on evidence and without insulting the handful of research studies that have been conducted on the matter (including my own on the effectiveness of restorative justice in prisons), what became apparent is our inability to do what Zehr pointed out as a prerequisite for understanding restorative justice i.e. changing the lenses through which we measure, value and deliver the blind Goddess of justice.

Linked to the issues of cost-benefit analysis was the Committee's question: "There has been some concern that enforcement of performance measures has been detrimental to the delivery of justice. Have you any evidence to support those claims?". Here is when I started to really struggle answering questions that were framed with a criminal justice mindset. With respect to the Committee I said: "I will try to answer the question slightly differently. If we try to understand restorative justice within the current criminal justice system and fit it in, mainstream it and roll it out, whatever answer I give you will not be fitting. If we try to take restorative justice back to its roots, change our lenses and see it for what it is, we will be able to understand that restorative justice works at a local level, through communities, and when it is initiated by the individuals. Whether we call them victims or offenders, using the criminal justice lens, is irrelevant to restorative justice. If you introduce performance measurement targets for criminal justice agencies—or, through those agencies that are funded to deliver restorative justice—and ask them to deliver, with £20,000, 20 cases that need to lead to an outcome, in my view, restorative justice will fail. I am not a practitioner but a researcher who has looked at restorative justice around the world. We may get one or two cases, but it will not be the restorative justice we know about and value, which is about the empowerment of individuals to reach some sort of consensus that makes them happy, so that we reach justice in a different way. If we try to mainstream it, introduce targets and, through those targets, fund individual projects, that is not restorative justice; it is another criminal justice option."

Honestly, I am not consciously trying to burn any bridges. I very much respect the work carried out by many individuals and organisations in the UK and abroad to promote restorative justice. History, as always, will judge us all, and as they have their own role to play, so do I.

This reminded me the little tiff I had with government when they asked the public what they thought of their idea to introduce a quality mark and a register for all those doing restorative justice. In my open letter to the Minister I said: We believe that the function and responsibility for regulation of justice belongs with government, and in the matter of restorative justice ordered by the courts, the Ministry of Justice. However, as a community born and community-led, localised practice, the realisation of RJ must remain in the hands of its community, its practitioners and indeed service users. The proposed framework gives total and exclusive control to one centralised authority and creates a top down structure for the regulation, delivery, training, accreditation and evaluation of restorative practices. We, and others, have presented evidence against this approach, which has been tested internationally. We also believe that this is against the core position of your government and the Big Society agenda. As also evidenced by research, the strength of RJ lies within its plurality, diversity and innovation. All these are characteristics that are found in voluntary and community sector organisations operating locally."

This is also when I openly spoke about the role of bodies such as the Restorative Justice Council (RJC), which at the time was being reviewed. I noted in my letter to the Ministry of Justice: "The proposals do not follow the practice of regulating professional bodies, which are separate from relevant membership bodies that retain their independence. The current review of the RJC has not yet been completed and that review did not include many of the major changes that the proposed measures will bring about. Furthermore, the draft proposals along with the fact that the RJC finances, chairmanship and work-plan will be primarily influenced by central government will raise concerns as to the status of this organisation as an independent charity and a membership organisation providing advocacy and voice services. We also feel that there is a need for more transparency in matters relating to funding. The rules of procurement and the allocation of central government funds require that an open and transparent process is followed. The proposals suggest the opposite as they have already identified the organisation that will deliver government services. We also have evidence to believe that if the process is not seen to be fair, the communities you are aiming to reach will be alienated and thus disengaged from your strategic outcomes." The letter was also backed up by a detailed written submission and a consultation that The IARS International Institute run in parallel to the one that the government was managing. The responsible Minister was kind enough to respond and his letter became public record. I must point out that I remain to be a member of the RJC, and I congratulate its new Chief Executive for making impressive progress in building bridges. After all, isn't this what restorative justice is all about?

I will conclude by repeating some of my learning from a recent book I edited using a multi-disciplinary approach in understanding restorative justice. There I said: "Try and visualize the word ‘justice’ or even ‘criminal justice’. When applying the test of using search engines, my hits rendered the same images that were in my mind. These were: the balanced scales of justice, the blindfolded Greek Goddess Themis (again holding the balanced scales of justice and a sword), holding hands or a fist. Reflecting on the findings of this homemade test, I argue that most of us visualize justice in this way simply because we view it as virtue, a value-based notion, a higher purpose and an honourable goal that can give essence to our life paths and sacrifices. My brain did not visualize justice in the form of prisons, courts, suited white men or ministries and politicians. I believe, that our brains deny diminishing justice to an image anything less than a representation of a higher existence. And yet, when an injustice takes place, we instantly visualize prison bars, tall walls, courtrooms and lawyers. By extension, this basic test made me think about the essence of restorative justice. Trying to visualize restorative justice, I did not capture any images of suited mediators, signed agreements or formalized registries and structures. I saw holding hands, circles of people deep in their emotions, shaking hands and people hugging. Maybe this is because the goals and processes of restorative justice are found in relations, emotions and shared values." I cannot imagine a world where our sense of justice is measured by how much we save when processing "offenders" or indeed how many contracts we delivered successfully in the name of restorative justice. I take responsibility in what has gone wrong at home and hope that we can all learn from what many indigenous and aboriginal communities tried to teach us.

Comments below are welcome!

Theo Gavrielides | @TGavrielides |

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