The McDonaldisation of a community-born and community-led ethos

This year, I was fortunate enough to spend restorative justice weekin Canada. Initiated by the Correctional Service Canada (CSC),restorative justice week has been celebrated annually across Canada since 1996 and is now taking international dimensions. It is recognized every third week of November to celebrate restorative justice practitioners and volunteers especially those working in the community. It is also an opportunity to talk and learn about restorative justice, an ethos that was brought back in the 1970s in the form of mediation, conferencing, circles, sentencing boards and other local initiatives. As I look back at the intense last seven days, I feel compelled to share some of the feelings and thoughts that have changed me in the most unexpected way.

I have been a restorative justice “student” for the last 13 years and despite my enthusiasm with the prospect of instilling something fresh into a broken criminal justice system, I remained objective. Most of my public speaking and academic articles would start in the same way: “The focus of researchers should not be on the superiority of restorative justice, but on the development of its processes and principles”. It is true that we have more evidence and writings on restorative justice than any other justice policy, and yet it is far from being used in the way that its proponents hope. As a believer of individual empowerment and the founder of a charity that promotes community-led solutions for a better society, my question has always been “How can restorative justice, as a community born ethos, enable the individual to have a genuine role in bringing fairness to society. Following from this, “What is the role of government, academics and practitioners in facilitating this process”; not for their own ends, but for the individual, let that be the “victim”, the “offender’, their family, friends … and their community.

After being welcomed by Dr. Zellerer and Prof. Morrison, my week started with meeting a dozen assistant Deputy Ministers, currently working on a provincial grand plan to reform and improve the criminal justice system. Following the August 2012 Geoff Cowper QC report “A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century”, the Minister of Justice committed to bringing change. I left the meeting with a strong sense of hope, but with a bitter after taste of reality. Most of the questioning was around savings, and what one would call “the business case for restorative justice”. After quoting the usual thin evidence, I was quick enough to come back to the question and address it by saying: “If we are trying to replace an apple that costs 5p with an orange that costs 4p and which promises the much needed vitamin C, then we have already lost. A true commitment will show when we implement changes that will improve long term outcomes”. But how naïve is this statement?

My answer was not evidence based. It was a reaction of what I am experiencing from what is happening back home in the UK. Only a few months after our coalition government took office, they announced their intentions for “Breaking the Cycle” of offending and re-offending by reforming the criminal justice system. This brought restorative justice back onto the policy agenda. A number of ministerial statements were made while millions of pounds have already been spent, or have been committed, for training prison staff and police officers on restorative justice. I expressed my scepticism, alerting people to the lessons of the old when the Labour Government launched its own public consultation, which then resulted in their 2003 plan for introducing restorative justice in the adult criminal justice system. Billions of pounds were spent on various research pilots, a “restorative justice unit” within the Home Office, conferences and training. But restorative justice was never put forward as a consistent and available option for victims, offenders and their communities.