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Book Review: Just emotions: rituals of restorative justice.

Jul 31, 2014

by Martin Wright

It is well established that restorative justice 'works', whether by that you mean that re-offending rates are reduced, or that a high proportion of victims and offenders feel that it was a suitable way to handle their case, or that it transformed their relationship and understanding of each other.  What we haven't had is much explanation of why it works, apart from general references to empathy, and that is what Meredith Rossner sets out to provide.  She begins with some case histories, and mentions that for example eye contact can be 'probably a much more profound apology than anything they could have said' (p. 4).  But an unsuccessful conference can be a 'waste of time' (p. 6).  An 'emotional' conference is seen as a good one, and she identifies reasons for satisfaction and the reverse, suggesting that 'examining the dynamics of conferences in depth is more productive than more generalized  comparisons with courts' (p. 20).  Two common criteria for 'success', satisfaction and re-offending, depend on the quality of the conference more than simply on whether the case went to RJ or to a court. 

Meredith Rossner. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  183pp.  ISBN 978-0-19-965504-5 hbk.  

Rossner contrasts the rituals of the court room and of the restorative conference;  the latter can produce 'collective effervescence' and a 'learned conscience'.  A single video-recorded conference is analysed in detail, with regard to facial expressions and body language, and excerpts are transcribed.   As often happens, there is an emotional turning point, in this case when the offender's partner describes graphically the state their little family was in when the father took his desperate step and grabbed the victim's handbag.  She may be making a calculated bid for sympathy, but Rossner argues convincingly that her motivation doesn't matter:  the conference gains the emotional energy which makes it successful.  Sometimes an offender walks in cynical, but changes when faced by the victim's hurt.  (A silence may also be a turning point.)

The analysis may seem to hang quite a lot of theory on a single case, but although every case is unique, this one seems likely to be fairly typical.  It is difficult to gain access to actual conferences, and interviewing offenders and victims afterwards could revive painful memories;  as the next best thing, Rossner interviewed facilitators, asking them to recall their best, worst and typical conferences - twenty-four in total.  They confirm that conferences are more likely to work if there has been serious physical harm;  less serious cases may not generate enough emotion.  We are rightly reminded that RJ does not 'work' every time:  in at least one conference the victim refused to respond restoratively, perhaps because of inadequate preparation;  maybe the case should have been screened out.  

Two chapters look at short-term outcomes and long-term consequences of successful interaction rituals.  Statistical analyses, on which your reviewer is not qualified to comment, show for example that when there is a high degree of stigmatisation of the offender, there are lower levels of  solidarity (group togetherness), reintegration and emotional energy;  defiant behaviour, despite being correlated with emotional energy, often leads to less successful outcomes.  However, measures other than re-offending should also be used, and factors other than RJ (such as demographic characteristics and previous offending history) need to be taken into account.   

In conclusion, a theory of RJ is outlined. To some extent the process depends on characteristics of the participants, but there are clues as to how the facilitator can improve the chances of reaching the vital turning point(s).  It is important to build up their emotions, and encourage them to think how they can express the effect the crime has had in a respectful manner.  Most of the guidance is in more general terms,  based on somewhat intangible factors such as rhythm and balance without saying much about how to achieve them. Some of the most important are preparation of the participants and an adequate space with thought-out seating arrangements. There are one or two practical tips, such as the 'click and drag' method of encouraging parties, by example, to make eye contact with each other, and encouraging them to set the seal on their agreement by sharing refreshments.  Finally, some requirements for a successful interaction are summarised.  This book will be useful to practitioners who want to deepen their understanding of the process which they facilitate, and to theorists who want to explore how RJ can be a more effective process than the conventional punishment-based criminal court room.  A more accessibly priced paperback would be welcome.

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Margaret Thorsborne
Margaret Thorsborne says:
Aug 29, 2014 05:15 AM

Martin, a useful addition to our understanding of the how and why RJ processes work can be found in our recent book "The Psychology of Emotion in Restorative Practice (Kelly and Thorsborne ads, 2014). Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Anne Burton
Anne Burton says:
Nov 04, 2014 10:27 PM

Hi Martin...We in Goulburn NSW Australia have contributed to the discussion in a chapter in the edition by Marg Thorsborne and Vick Kelly. Our practice has been built on the centrality of emotions, using Tomkins Affect Script Psychology, with Restorative Tools to work through difficult family issues that present at our community agency; Goulburn Family Support Service; a google search will link you to our web site for further information.

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