Restorative justice and system change, part II

In the previous blog entry, Carl started his discussion of restorative justice and system change by challenging part of Ross London’s argument in Ross’s recent book, Crime, Punishment and Criminal Justice – From Margins to Mainstream.  This entry led to an important discussion.  In order to continue this dialogue, we are publishing Ross’ response, with minor editing, as a guest blog entry. Readers may wish to read the previous blog entry and the resulting discussion as a background to what follows.

Hi Carl

This is a really important discussion that  I would be happy to be engaged in with you, my friend Gerry Johnstone and others: how can RJ move into the world of serious crime and adult offenders?

I happen to agree with you that social movements require a bold, radical “avant garde” approach to lay the groundwork for transformation. In positioning RJ as a new paradigm, Howard Zehr was able to ignite an idea and propel it into an international  movement. This  could not have begun with a modest proposal for mere reform.

But there has been a cost to this way mode of presentation.  What I have argued  is that  positioning RJ as a new paradigm brings with it a kind of dichotomizing tendency associated with many other ideas that have also been framed as new  paradigms.  This encourages a tendency to dismiss  attempts at reform as “co-optation” and, in insisting on the  original purity of a concept, the automatic rejection of  features of the “old paradigm” regardless of their utility and moral value.  (Examples include due process of law, equality of treatment, proportionality  in sentencing, the right to counsel etc.)  Along with this is a tendency to uncritically embrace every feature of the new  paradigm, however questionable (such as penal abolition and  disposition by private negotiation, even for repeat and violent criminals).

So, how can we move RJ into the ” mainstream” without thereby losing its soul? This has been the focus of all of my work.

The answer I  believe, is to try to understand what  exactly IS the soul of RJ.  My answer may sound simple but I  really do think it is true: the  soul of RJ is the effort  to repair the harm of crime. This is an utterly original and unique contribution to our understanding of criminal justice that  Howard has put forth so effectively, and something that every RJ advocate, regardless of political or philosophical orientation, can agree upon.  The mechanisms we devise to  achieve the goal of repair are all secondary considerations. What is very clear to me is that the goal of restoration does not require the  dismantling of the current criminal justice (CJ) system and its replacement with a radical alternative.  Instead of conceiving  of CJ as the antithesis of  “conventional” CJ, (i.e. one that is, in Kuhnian terminology,  “incommensurate” with conventional CJ), what I propose is to conceive of restoration as the overarching goal of criminal justice – one that may inform, reform and transform  all of our practices toward a common end. The means we choose to achieve repair in every case may therefore extend to  every aspect of CJ – from policing to corrections – and may extend to the full range of practices, both within and outside of the conventional system.

To escape our present marginality, therefore, I argue that RJ must be open to a plurality of means to achieve the end of  repair – and must place primary focus on the real needs of victims. As my book states:

In truth, nobody “owns” restorative justice.  The original visionaries of restorative justice  have bequeathed to the world a wonderful gift –  an idea to transform criminal justice as we know it.  The true beneficiaries of this gift are neither the theorists nor the criminal justice practitioners, but rather those who suffer from the trauma of crime.  The challenge to restorative justice theory and practice is to develop a criminal justice system that is more effective, fair and humane in order to address the needs of crime victims and communities, without preconceptions as to what they “really need” and without limitation to those practices that conform to a favored “paradigm.”

I would love to explore this further with you and your blog readers. And let’s get together some time and talk it through!

Best wishes,