What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative Justice (RJ) is a different way of tackling crime, based not on punishment (see description of retributive justice below) but on healing the harm that has been caused. It brings offenders into face-to-face conversations with their victims - and sometimes that dialogue is so powerful it can transform the future of each participant.
Victims get answers to questions about the crime they suffered, which for many also brings much-needed peace of mind, and the person who committed the crime gets the opportunity to try to make amends to the people they’ve hurt. This has been shown to drastically slow down future reoffending, so fewer people will become victims of crime. Sometimes RJ is used as an alternative to criminal prosecution (with very low level crime) but mostly it’s used alongside the Criminal Justice System.
A very important principle is that all participants should come to an RJ meeting voluntarily; no-one should be forced to take part if they don’t want to. And we at the Chris Donovan Trust believe very strongly that the facilitators should be properly trained and accredited, so that the encounter only goes ahead after thorough preparation of all parties, and with an assurance of safety and total confidentiality. We can gladly provide more information about the details of restorative justice on request, as well as suggest further reading or sources of research.
Retributive Justice: our Criminal Justice System
You come home to discover that your house has been broken into and several valuable items, including your laptop, have been stolen. What happens next? You will probably call the police and, if they are able to apprehend those responsible, a court process will take place. You may get your laptop back, you may not. The people who broke into your house may go to jail, they may not. Everyone involved is at the mercy of “the system”. Any questions you have about your safety or why your house was targeted go unanswered. Any restitution the perpetrators may want to make will probably not be allowed, as it would interfere with the court process and imply guilt. Overall, basic human needs and responsibilities are ignored, and the focus is on the punishment.
What Crime has been committed?
Who is to blame?
What will their punishment be?
The scales of justice above are balanced towards the offender and very often the victim doesn’t even get a say in the court proceedings; in fact many victims just sit at the back of the court as bystanders.
Sure, the victim may get justice, but they can leave the courtroom feeling very angry that they didn’t get answers or even the truth or a "sorry". Some victims want to the offender to really know about the damage they have done to them, but with retributive justice processes this will never happen and many victims are left feeling at best dissatisfied, with unanswered questions (such as, why did you rob MY house?) . At worst - revictimised. The truth is, for most offenders victims are just a "piece of A4 paper" in court, and they don’t have to personalise the people who they have committed a crime against.
In the worst cases the criminals go to prison and just get on with their punishment, without giving their victims a second thought.
A useful definition of RJ: it's a way of dealing with crime and conflict where those who are most involved in the event take up a central role; this involves accountability from those who caused the harm and empowerment of those harmed. The needs of the person who was harmed are taken into account as much as possible, and those most affected are involved in dealing with the outcome. This can be contrasted to the traditional justice system, where the focus is on ‘the offender’. With restorative justice, the accused is invited to take meaningful responsibility and make amends in ways that are important to the victim, not just to society in general.
Retributive versus Restorative Justice and who benefits
A lot of people we meet say that prisoners get time off their sentence if they take part in RJ. This isn't true, and with post-sentence RJ there is no incentive to meet with their victim other than the greater awareness of their crime. They don’t get any time off, in fact many offenders have told us it's far harder for them to sit in a room with their victim than it is to do their time!
In today’s justice system it is too often all about the offender, and sometimes the victim is not even called to the trial. And victims feel left out - as did Ray and Vi, whose case centred around the men who killed their son, and they, Chris's family, were made to feel like they were "getting in the way". (This is the court system and had nothing to do with the police who did a great job). If you look at the diagram below you will see how retributive justice is wholly offender-focused and Restorative Justice is victim-centred - thus tipping the scales of justice towards the victim.
Who's been hurt?
What are their needs?
Who will meet their needs?
The process in which rule-breaking behaviour is dealt with differs in restorative justice. In criminal justice, ‘the victim’ mainly serves as a source of information, and both ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ have rather passive roles. In restorative justice, those affected are given active, participatory roles in dealing with crime. This can be done through a dialogue, where all affected people explore one another’s feelings and needs in a safe and respectful environment. A neutral third party, the trained facilitator, can assist them as they try to reach consensus on how to deal with the aftermath of offending behaviour. They may choose to have people support them in this conversation. This way, the outcome of the process will be tailored to the specific needs of the parties involved, and the specific context of the facts and persons involved. Restorative justice is a flexible process, whereas the criminal justice process tends to be very rigid.
Most restorative justice conferences are run by facilitators who do not take sides and are trained NEVER to offer advice. They listen and let everyone tell their story and help to keep everyone feeling safe. They use restorative questions to help people have their say.
The meeting or "conference" only takes place after lengthy preparation of both sides, which can take several hours over a long period of time. No one will meet in say a couple of days the mediators will visit both sides and even before the meeting you will have the opportunity to enquire about anything you wish to know about your offender: like what courses he/she has done to better themselves while in prison. You may have questions about the crime, you may want to ask before the meeting, and hopefully get answers back and this could take months depending on the crime that has been committed.
There will be no RJ meeting until the mediators are sure everything has been put in place and it is safe for both parties to meet. Again we must stress again that this is voluntarily on both sides and no one should be pushed into an RJ meeting. The last thing anyone wants is victims being re-victimized.
And the mediators will have to make sure that safety of the offender is also top priority and when they are satisfied that every risk assessment has been put into place and they feel everyone is ready only then will the meeting take place.
At the meeting there should be two rooms one for the main meeting and the second room is like a time out room where either party can go to if the meeting gets too much and they may need a few minutes to just think over what was said.
Both parties are invited to bring someone with them it could be a friend or work colleague but they are not allowed to say anything they are just there for support.
Everything is timed the victim is told what time to turn up for the meeting let’s say 13:00hrs then the offender will arrive 13:30hrs. This is done so both parties don’t meet up before the meeting and everything is put into place to protect both parties.
The meeting itself shouldn’t have an limit but it is best to have a start and finish time set. The meeting normally starts off with the offender talking (this is optional) and explaining why he/she committed their crime, while they are talking no one is allowed to interrupt until they are finished talking. Then the victim has their voice to tell the offender what it was like for them when the crime was committed and the ripple effect it not only had on them but their family, friends and the community too.
Again there are a lot of questions and answers going back and forth. The meeting should end with tea and biscuits and it is here that both parties learn more about each other - this is when sometimes the monster becomes a human being.
Restorative Justice is the best thing that has happened in this country because as we said “for the first time the victim gets a voice”.
If you are a victim of crime and want information about restorative justice or you would like to meet your offender and are not sure where to go or who to contact we are here to help please clink on the contact us link we will be only too happy to help.