Happy International Restorative Justice Week 2023, and congratulations to all the practitioners, researchers and campaigners who kept the restorative justice flame burning. More importantly, a warm thank you to the harmed and harming parties who have agreed to try out restorative justice in the hope that it can provide an alternative to finding a personalised experience of healing and empowerment.
International restorative justice week is about celebrating and acknowledging achievements. But it is also an opportunity to look back, be self-critical and through honest feedback try to improve. There is so much potential in this bio-power called restorative justice! I have been writing an annual blog for restorative justice week since 2012. To read my previous blocks follow this link.
This year, I decided to address one more myth about restorative justice i.e. that it exists widely with plenty of practitioners and community leaders delivering it.
The reader of this blog will know that I have the right to claim safely that the restorative justice practice is so scant that it can hardly be identified for basic, viable research - let alone map it! It, therefore, leaves me with questions of true intentions when I see attempts to map, register or index it! Or are these attempts focused on the top down provision of restorative justice through statutory criminal justice agencies? Is this what restorative justice been reduced to?
Restorative justice is first and foremost our communities' response to a failing criminal justice system. It is a community-born and a community-led practice. A recent blog by the e is useful, and I have written many times about the top down structures that end up MacDonaldising restorative justice. In fact, the very first blog that started international #rjweek was on this topic!
Apples and oranges
I have always championed the maximalistic vision of restorative justice, which sees it as more than just a practice, but as an ethos and a way of life.
This vision allows us to find restorative justice in our everyday lives, homes, conflicts between family members and friends, work environment, neighbourhoods and so on. This is also the space where I believe prevention and the true transformative power of restorative justice takes place, as it allows an organic and unbiased delivery of pain that transforms from within. I have written about my interpretation of restorative justice punishment in the form of contructive and cleansing pain (πόνος) similar to the catharsis that we experience in Greek and other tragedies (Gavrielides, 2021, 2013).
But here I refer to apples, not oranges i.e. restorative justice that allows a criminal or civil case to be diverted from the justice system whether this relates to adult or youth offending. This diversion takes the narrow path of restorative justice as it is expressed through its key practices of mediation, circles and conferencing.
In the UK, restorative justice is embedded in legislation for both the adult and youth justice systems. The images below present the key pieces of legislation and justice stages, a harmed or harming party can experience restorative justice.
UK Adult criminal justice system
UK Youth criminal justice system
Where are you?
As part of RJ4All's vision of building the world's first restorative justice post-code, we put a lot more emphasis on delivering direct and indirect case work using restorative justice and focusing on issues such as hate incidents, gender-based violence and domestic abuse. We have been fortunate to be supported by four of the UK's leading restorative justice practitioners since our inception, but as our needs developed we tried to find more practitioners to work with us. But where are you?
While the restorative justice training market is crowded, actual restorative justice practice is in dire need of experienced practitioners who can support complex cases with power implications. If you are reading this, and you feel you can facilitate our cases, please leave a comment or email me (even if you might not be UK based).
Learning from the past: Being honest
There is nothing wrong about acknowledging the need to build the restorative justice sector especially increasing its experienced practitioners' workforce, paying attention to their gender and race as well as their backgrounds and cultures.
But first, we must accept that as restorativists, we are not immune to the power abuse virus simply because we are part of the machinery that is set up by communities to defeat it.
We also need to learn from the past and the consequences that our claims have on the development of restorative justice. I am thinking of the 2013 opportunity that was presented to restorative justice when the UK government decided to invest £29 million paying its Police and Crime Commissioners to help deliver restorative justice for victims over three years. The money was part of a wider allocated funding for victims of at least £83 million through 2015-16.
Furthermore, the government passed the Crime and Courts Act 2013, inserting a new section into the Powers of the Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. As a result of this Act, since December 2014, the UK courts have had the power to defer the passing of a sentence to restorative justice provided that all parties agree .
Not to my surprise, many restorative justice organisations saw this development as a great victory that would put restorative justice on the map, while allowing its roll out. It was greeted with enthusiasm and once again my voice was amongst the few who were seen as the trouble makers of our movement!
This change in legislation also enabled a selection of pilot schemes to be undertaken as ‘pathfinders’. In particular, the Ministry of Justice provided funding to three Probation Trusts to enable them to develop local models for the delivery of pre-sentence restorative justice in magistrate’s courts. Furthermore, with match funding from the Underwood Trust, it invested £2m to run what the press called “The first victim-led restorative justice programmes”. These were run “in crown courts across England and Wales in an attempt to cut reoffending rates”. Further substantial funding was also invested by the same Ministry for setting up a register of restorative justice practitioners.
A few years later, the pathfinders and register were independently evaluated and, not to my surprise, the results were rather disappointing (Kirby and Jacobson, 2015). Over an 18-month funding period and the engagement of 10 Crown Courts, only 55 pre-sentence restorative conferences and 38 “alternative restorative justice activities” were carried out. A total of 2,273 victims were identified of which contact was successfully made with 1,201 of whom 446 expressed an initial interest in restorative justice. The defendant pleaded guilty in 179 of the cases with interested victims, which resulted in 147 adjournments for restorative justice (Kirby and Jacobson, 2015). The evaluation results summarised that: “The overall number of completed restorative justice activities was lower than had been anticipated at the outset of the pathfinder; this reflects a number of significant challenges to implementation” (Kirby and Jacobson, 2015: 4).
These disappointing results alarmed Parliament and consequently held a public inquiry to which I was called to present oral evidence. An impressive amount of written and oral evidence was submitted, resulting in Parliament saying that “ring-fencing funding to Police and Crime Commissioners may appear superficially attractive, but we do not believe budgets for restorative justice could be set in a reliable or sensible manner” (House of Commons, 2016: 3). The report also reads: “It is too soon to introduce a legislative right to access restorative justice services, but such a goal is laudable and should be actively worked towards. We believe a right to access such services should be included in the Victims’ Law, but that provision should only be commenced once the Minister has demonstrated to Parliament that the system has sufficient capacity” (4).
Parliament also reminded government and other stakeholders that the evidence on the financial effectiveness of restorative justice is still thin. Following evidence from various experts, the Parliamentary report concluded that “undue reliance should not be placed on the statistic that £8 is saved for every £1 spent on restorative justice” (Shapland et al, 2008).
I could not feel more embarrassed as a restorativist and a researcher with membership to the restorative justice movement. How did we get it so wrong, and how can such an opportunity be missed? At the time, these questions were difficult to ask, let alone answer.
This experience is not unique to the UK. In fact, we have done really well here considering the power interest battles that are taking place within the European and international restorative justice movement. It is a shame that certain restorative justice organisations continue to exclude and that restorative justice is still seen a commodity for monopolising its benefits and name.
Wrapping up for #rjweek
I am calling on the restorative justice movement whether in the UK or abroad to celebrate our achievements with honesty, humility and responsibility. When harmed and harming parties come forth asking for restorative justice, learn to say "no", if you do not have the experienced practitioner to help them. More importantly let's all stop overselling our product which is so special and limited that simply cannot be Macdonaldised!
As always, the RJ4All International Institute is celebrating #rjweek through the dissemination of free online and face to face material, the holding of events and training seminars. To find out more follow this link
If you believe in our cause and you find the free resources we are disseminating during #rjweek useful, please consider donating through our Crowdfunder. We are raising funds to challenge poverty, a key factor that leads to community tensions and power abuse. Every contribution, no matter small, will be doubled through our supporters
 The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 established a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for each police force area across England and Wales. In London, the elected Mayor is the equivalent of the PCC and is responsible for the totality of policing in the capital.  In May 2014, non-statutory guidance was issued by the Ministry of Justice that provides an overview of the processes involved in the delivery of pre-sentence restorative justice in accordance with section 1ZA.  https://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/dec/01/restorative-justice-pilot-scheme-courts (accessed February 2017).  https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/justice-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/restorative-justice-inquiry-15-16/ (accessed February 2017).  See http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/justice-committee/restorative-justice/oral/32108.pdf (accessed February 2017)