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Restorative Justice: key issues

Video on restorative justice.
Conventional responses to criminal conduct, including sentencing practice, emphasise the need to punish the offender. The standard analysis is that punishment is done on behalf of society – there is an emphasis on the public nature of criminal justice, and on the idea that a crime is something which breaches society’s norms. Now, imagine a situation in which Fred and George are neighbours, and let’s say that Fred has been repeatedly causing damage to George’s house – perhaps he’s been writing graffiti on the walls, or breaking the fence. Depending on the particular circumstances, Fred’s behaviour might amount to a range of different criminal offences – it might be criminal damage or it might be harassment, for example.
And we could imagine a situation in which Fred was tried for these offences and sentenced accordingly – maybe he would spend time in prison, or maybe he would be given a community penalty. But he and George might still have to live next door to each other afterwards – and it may be that the way in which Fred was sentenced did nothing to deal with that.
A recurring complaint about standard approaches to criminal justice processes, including sentencing, is that they perhaps neglect the interests of the people most directly affected by the crime itself – so if we focus on society’s interest in punishing Fred, we might overlook the fact that George was the original victim of the offences, and that as well as breaching a social norm, Fred’s conduct did particular damage to George’s interests. Now some of that particular damage can be reflected in the sentence Fred receives, but the sentence may not do anything particular to repair the relationship between Fred and George.
So, an alternative approach to dealing with some offences has developed – in reality it is a range of different approaches – going under the heading of restorative justice. Restorative processes might be used as an alternative to going through the full court process or they might be used as part of a sentence after conviction. These restorative processes aim to give the victim of the offence the chance to explain to the offender the impact of the offence on them; and they aim to give the offender the chance to acknowledge their offence and its impact, to apologise, and in some instances to take specific steps to address the damage they have caused.
So, maybe Fred could repair the fence and clean the graffiti off George’s house. One type of restorative approach would involve a mediation between the victim and the offender – a neutral third party would facilitate a conversation between them, during which the victim could explain how the offence has affected them, and the offender could acknowledge their wrongdoing and apologise. These processes seek to empower those who are most directly affected by an offence, and they are a stark challenge to standard criminal justice practice. But, as always, we need to be aware of their potential limitations.
So, for this kind of process to work, the people involved have got to be willing to participate, in order that the process can be conducted with sincerity. We might be wary about whether restorative justice creates any issues around equality – so, if one supposed benefit of restorative justice is that victims and offenders can come up with their own solutions, we might have a situation in which two similar offences are dealt with differently, because the victims and offenders in each case come up with different solutions. Restorative approaches have been used across the world in relation to a wide range of offending – including, in some cases, very serious offences.
But restorative approaches might be more suitable in some contexts than others, and we would want to be sure that the context we were thinking about using it in was a suitable one. So, there may be some offences where the relationship between the offender and the victim is irreparably damaged by the offence, and where a restorative approach might not work, and worse, might create additional distress for the victim.

You might remember Matt Matravers, in the video on desert and deterrence, suggesting that we should be willing to think differently about sentencing and not just be tied to the things we have always done.

‘Restorative Justice’ is a label given to a set of approaches and practices which challenge conventional approaches to sentencing and to criminal justice more broadly. Look at the label – ‘restorative’ – referring to the idea of being restored, or made good again. What restorative justice processes seek to restore are the relationships which have been damaged by offending. Perhaps conventional approaches to sentencing, which focus on punishment exacted on an offender on behalf of society, can’t do this so well, because it can’t effectively have an impact on those relationships with which restorative justice is concerned.

In this video I discuss some aspects of restorative justice – what it is supposed to achieve, how it might be different from orthodox approaches, what it involves. Bear in mind that there is no single uncontroversial rule for what ‘counts’ as restorative justice, but try to get a sense of the principles which inform it.

When you are watching the video, reflect on your intuitions about restorative justice.

Does it sound appealing to you?

What do you like or dislike about it, and why?

Discuss your ideas with your colleagues.

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From Crime to Punishment: an Introduction to Criminal Justice

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