Restorative justice is not just saying 'Sorry'
Sep 13, 2010
Martin Wright's letter to the editor that didn't get published:
Mark Johnson’s critique gives a chance to correct some common misconceptions about restorative justice (‘Apologising to victims will not reduce reoffending rates’, SocietyGuardian, 18 August). It is not about dragging offenders to see their victims, telling them to say “sorry”, nor making them do menial tasks wearing conspicuous clothing. It does not humiliate offenders (provided it is done properly, of course); they are enabled to show that they can do something useful and be valued for it.
It lets victims explain, and offenders understand, the damaging effects of their actions (and in some cases, such as fights, both have been at fault in some ways). Both are asked questions like ‘What happened?’ ‘Who was affected?’ ‘What do you think and feel about it?’ and ‘What needs to be done to make things better?’ Victims often ask for an apology and/or reparation, but what most of them want is answers to questions and action to make a repeat less likely. This could mean that the offender makes reparation by co-operating with whatever support he or she needs, programmes such as anger management, drug treatment or vocational skills.
The restorative process motivates many offenders better than a court order. This is part of the reason for the well attested drop in the frequency of re-offending. Johnson is right to say that many offenders need help. ‘Making things better’ includes not only supporting victims but making it possible for offenders to make reparation by providing the above-mentioned programmes. Individuals can help too, for example as mentors or employers.
He is also right to imply that his young friend Charmaine is more likely to show empathy to her victim when empathy has been shown to her. Restorative justice doesn’t guarantee this, of course, but makes it more likely. Moreover, we should not be thinking of it only for people like Charmaine: white-collar offenders might show more contrition and make more reparation if they came out of their boardrooms and gated communities and met their victims.
No one is suggesting ‘a whole industry being paid to organise’ victim-offender mediation. It does need skilled handling by people who understand restorative principles; they may be criminal justice personnel if suitably trained, but volunteers from community mediation services can also do it with proper training, support and supervision. This could be an important step towards making restorative justice generally available.
The restorative process encourages exploration of the background of criminality (such as school exclusion in Charmaine’s case; perhaps restorative principles could be introduced into her school), which could be fed back to those responsible for social policy. This should be the next objective for the restorative justice movement.