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Although restorative justice may heal victims of crime can its processes deliver justice?

Introduction

There can be no doubt that restorative justice is now part of the criminal justice system in the UK and many other countries such as Canada, Australia, the US, South Africa and New Zealand. Admittedly, restorative justice has not yet been properly defined so that we acquire a clear view about its exact content and extent of application. However, the literature and field of practice shares at least the same general idea about what constitutes its practices and the main targets of its procedural outcomes.

According to Tony Marshal Restorative Justice is a process whereby parties with a stake in a specific offence collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future. Theo Gavrielides defines it in the following way: Restorative Justice is an ethos with practical goals, among which is to restore the harm done by including all affected parties in a process of understanding through voluntary and honest dialogue, and by adopting a fresh approach to conflicts and their control, retaining at the same time certain rehabilitative goals.

Adam Crawford and Tim Newburn identify the core restorative practices to be: (1) victim offender mediation (2) Family Group Conferencing (3) Healing and Sentencing Circles and (4) citizens' panels and community boards.

The effect of restorative justice on victims

Arguably one of the most complete evaluation studies that have been carried out on the impact of restorative practices on victims is the one by the Australian Institute of Criminology. This involved the so called Reintegrative Shaming experiments (RISE) which used Braithwaite's theory of reintegrative shaming. In 2000, Strang showed that 71% of the victims who participated in the RISE experiments and whose case was randomly assigned to a family group conferencing got an apology compared with 17% of the cases that were randomly assigned to court. 77% of the conference apologies were considered by the victim to be sincere whereas this was the case for only 36% of the apologies that were given through court. Finally, 65% of victims felt either quite or very angry before the FGC and 27% felt so afterward. However, the proportion of victims who felt sympathetic to their offender almost tripled by the end of the restorative procedure. In Strang's terms: Overall, victims most often said their conference had been a helpful experience in allowing them to feel more settled about the offence, to feel forgiving towards their offender and to experience a sense of closure.

Can restorative process deliver justice?

In answering this question one needs to consider first what constitutes justice. Philosophers like Aristotle, Plato but also Stuart Mills and Jeremy Bentham define the ideal of justice through the experiences of its receivers. In this case, it can be argued that the end users/receivers of justice are victims, offenders and their respective communities. Consequently, the question could be rephrased to read: Can restorative justice satisfy victims, offenders and communities in the fight against crime and in the aftermath of a harm done?

The answer is again found in the extant literature that reports on a number of international and national research studies on the effectiveness of restorative justice. Braithwaite said: My own reading of the three dozen studies of re-offending reviewed is that while RJ programmes do not involve a consistent guarantee of reducing offending even badly managed RJ programmes are most unlikely to make re-offending worse.

To conclude, as the evidence is still accumulating it cannot be safely claimed that restorative justice can deliver justice for all its targeted audiences: victims, offenders and communities. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that it can provide a sound basis for future implementation and research. It is only through hard evidence that the fears of policymakers and academics who adhere to the retributive principles will be dismissed.

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