Partial justice?

We often equate restorative justice with encounter.  In its “original” form – the model of practice that led to the establishment of this field – this meant a facilitated encounter between victim and offender.  Paul MCold, in an early issue of Contemporary Justice Review, has taken it further:  in what he calls a “purist” view, only if the encounter includes all three stakeholders – victim, offender and community – is it truly restorative justice.

But if we limit restorative justice to an idealized encounter among all stakeholders, its parameters are pretty narrow.  What happens when no encounter is possible?

Increasingly for me, what is most important about restorative justice is the framework it provides:  the values and principles around which we can fashion our responses to wrongdoing.  Sometimes all of the elements of restorative justice are possible.  In real life, however, justice may have to be approximate.  In other words, restorative responses and practices fall on a continuum of “restorativeness.”  While we should always aim to be as restorative as possible, it is important to acknowledge that full restorative justice is not always achievable.   Moreover, good can come of those approaches that seem incomplete.

The latest issue of the Journal for Peace & Justice Studies (Vol. 18, No. 1 & 2, published by Villanova University) is focused on restorative justice.  In an article entitled “Getting and Keeping it Real:  Less Than Perfect Restorative Justice Intervention and the Value of Small Connectors,” long-time restorative justice advocate and researcher Gordon Bazemore notes that much restorative justice research has focused on the power of strong social ties.  Family group conferences, designed to build upon and strengthen family relationships, have been much researched, for example.  But in modern society, weaker ties are more pervasive connectors.  Bazemore argues that much can be accomplished by drawing upon and strengthening such “weak ties.”

He looks specifically at two “weak,” less-than-perfect, applications:  community service programs and neighborhood accountability boards.  Though sometimes included in the the restorative justice field, neither is a full or ideal example of restorative decision-making or obligations.  But both connect with three encouraging theoretical approaches and research literatures that are part of the larger civic or community justice field.  These focus on 1) the importance of positive identity formation (including a sense of dignity and competence), 2) the power of informal social controls and support, and 3) the capacity of communities to develop shared norms and build relationships of trust and reciprocity as a form of social capital.  Thus even though they are only partial applications of restorative justice at best, such “weak” applications can have positive outcomes if they build on these factors.  Moreover, in many situations these partial applications may be the most realistic options.

As he acknowledges, there are of course dangers in such “watered-down” practices.  Unless guided by clear principles and values, they can be used for non-restorative goals.  Also – and I realize that to some I sound like a broken record on this – it is all-to-easy to focus on offenders and ignore the needs and roles of those who have been harmed, the victim.

Community service is a case in point.  Its history in the western world has been largely as an alternative form of punishment; in a society that claims to value a work ethic, forced labor can be seen as good punishment.  Indeed, some argue that it is the 13th Amendment that abolished involuntary enslavement except upon conviction of a crime that provides the legal justification for it.  The chain gang is one awful result.  And in its most common forms, it does nothing for victims.

Yet when properly designed and implemented, reparative community service can be positive and powerful.  There are numerous stories, for example, of offenders who found their service a way to make amends, develop positive self-identities and develop community ties.  And of victims who found such service to be satisfactory symbolic reparation.

The key, I think, is the extent to which the reparative work is guided by four principles:  1) the person providing the service is treated respectfully throughout, 2) the outcome is decided through a participatory, deliberative process, 3) as much as possible, the work makes sense as a kind of reparation rather than “make work,” and 4) it serves to connect, or re-connect, the service provider to the community.  The “visual restoration” Mural Arts project I described in my last blog is an example of this.

A major concern, however, is that these partial or approximate applications not be implemented as an easy out, a way to avoid the hard work it takes to implement a full program.  Rather than work with victims to make a program victim-friendly enough that victims want to participate, for example, some programs instead have someone like a staff person stand in for victims.  Not only is this often ineffective – even counterproductive, some research suggests – but it neglects a key goal of restorative justice.

The real genius of restorative justice is the way it highlights the role and needs of victims in the justice process.  If restorative justice is to truly help re-invent justice, we must not lose that focus.