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Let's get it right! Restorative justice circles are not therapy circles

By Dr. Theo Gavrielides

The reminder

I was thrilled when our Centre Manager, Anna Fosse-Galtier, told me that we will be using restorative justice circles at our RJ4All Rotherhithe Community Centre for our service users. My team, and especially Carmen Costa were excited to implement this practice following a recent training they received from our restorative justice practitioner Janine Caroll. They are not aware that I am writing this blog, which should explain why at a recent staff meeting I had to pulled them back a bit, and remind them of the fine line that exists between restorative justice circles and circles of therapy and mental health.

An old concern

This concern of mine is not recent. In my edited book "The Psychology of Restorative Justice", my dear friend and colleague, Lorenn Walker, presented a case study with people imprisoned for crimes that they did not commit (chapter 8). Her work helped me to make the connections between the restorative practice of circles and psychology. It also raised a series of new questions such as where does group therapy end and where does restorative justice circles begin? Looking at innocent incarcerated people and their families, she claims that circles can help them heal for their suffering caused both by harmful behaviours and from the loss of their loved one to prison and absence in their daily lives. Walker’s arguments made me ask whether the restorative justice circle is another form of group therapy. If the answer is yes, then a further question is raised and that is whether psychology is trying to claim justice territory? As a barrister, this question made me feel anxious.

I continued looking for answers to the aforementioned questions through my own research and practice, but also through the work of others. In the same volume, Worth et al (chapter 11) and Ramirez et al (chapter 12) presented new qualitative research that they carried out using the tools of psychology and positive psychology to measure, understand and challenge restorative justice. They argue that in order for restorative justice to work, a psychological space must be created which allows offenders to be more than their offense, to be seen as a larger or fuller person than their crime alone. They explain, “In this space, we saw individuals display insight, understanding, movement and a willingness to be more than their stereotype and their crime”. They then advise us that through their eyes as psychologists, they also saw the impact of anxiety about the restorative justice process impacting the offender. They advocate that this must be acknowledged and managed, if restorative justice is to be effective.

Worth et al made me think how much more we can learn by using applied sciences as learning tools for restorative justice. It also made me clarify where the relationship between restorative justice and psychology should end.

What we are, and what we are not - and why

Restorative justice practitioners are not qualified therapists. And therapists are not restorative justice practitioners. They are merely two different professions that should work closely together, if we are genuine in restoring harm and generating long-term healing.

This doesn't make my team or anyone practising restorative justice less qualified or effective. Quite the opposite. Understanding and implementing restorative justice safely, correctly and as per its founding values is a tough job. It involves personal growth.

What is restorative justive good at then?

Justice, and with it restorative justice, is a value not for psychological, biological and neurological treatment. It is a virtue beyond our scientific reach. It is central to our existence and inter-connecteness. If we want to do restorative justice, and with it, restorative justice circles well, we should not be looking at therapy, psychology or any other science. We should be looking at ourselves. This is the true power of restorative justice; a power so strong that is capable of collapsing the power structures that surround us.

Of course, this conclusion should not be read as a dismissal of the role and contribution of psychology, therapy, positive psychology and other sciences. These can all serve as tools for evaluation and observation. They can also serve in helping us channel and safeguard the power within, and what surrounds it. In fact, one of my mentors, Professor Gerry Johnstone, wrote in a recent volume (Chapter 26) that I edited The Routledge International Handbook of Restorative Justice that the future of restorative justice might be its progression to becoming a therapeutic practice. Therapy for crime prevention, he said, was rather popular when criminologists were quick to attribute criminogenic risks to psychological factors. As criminology progressed and while we started to accept that harming is a complex phenomenon, the therapeutic tradition became less popular in crime prevention and control. Restorative justice, however, he said came to revive it, and within its principles it can find the next steps for its survival.

I am not as enthusiastic about this idea as Gerry. I believe that while science should be used as a tool for understanding and controlling powers and conflict, we must remember that the underlying values and norms making the restorative justice notion exist beyond scientific interpretation. Restorative justice lie within our collective and individual ethos, hearts and communities.

And community is the missing word here. How can individually focused disciplines claim a prominent role in the delivery of the virtue of justice? It is in the very DNA of restorative justice to depend on the existence of others.

Back to the team

So, lets do restorative justice circles, but we must be careful not to call them therapy circles, circles of mental health, wellbeing circles or just circles. Lets practice with responsibility, and while doing so, if there is a need for therapy and mental health support, we must refer our parties to therapists and psychologists. And this is also an invitation to those working in the psychology sphere to work more closely with restorative justice circles, when they see harm and the potential for restoration.


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