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Review: Restorative justice in practice: Evaluating what works for victims and offenders.

Mar 02, 2012

Joanna Shapland, Gwen Robinson, and Angela Sorsby (2011). Restorative justice in practice: Evaluating what works for victims and offenders. Oxford, UK: Taulor & Francis Group Ltd. Paperback. 227 pages.

by Eric Assur

Three British criminology researchers and educators, affiliated with the University of Sheffield, have offered a very rich book on the use of victim-offender mediation programs (what they call schemes) in adult criminal justice venues in England. 

Most early Restorative Justice (RJ) writing has focused on juvenile justice programs, generally with a concentration on diversionary approaches for first time offenders. The Shapland, Robinson and Sorsby book looks exclusively and intensely at three ‘schemes’ and several hundred ‘cases’ involving adults. The criminal justice programs they studied were funded by the British Ministry of Justice – Home Office between 2001 and 2008.  They worked with adults at arrest, while going through the courts and even with some while imprisoned.  

In a nutshell, this is a thought provoking book that has few significant weak points.  This is not a primer on Restorative Justice. It assumes that readers are at least moderately informed about RJ. It belongs in the hands of North American justice administrators. While not designed as a textbook (no end of chapter discussion questions), it concludes with end notes and references that make it a useful reference for anyone seeking to look further into transformative justice and RJ, especially as found in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Early chapters are devoted to laying a foundation for understanding the United Kingdom government funded projects outlined in the book. Referring to seminal authors H. Zehr, Van Ness & Strong, J. Braithwaite, M. Umbreit and others, they develop the notion of a justice that restores. Although they do not discuss the more commonplace retributive justice systems where the offender is adjudicated and held accountable by the state, with or without any promise of rehabilitation or even repairing the harm that occurred to the victim, the reader still ends up with an adequate understanding of the many flavors of RJ.

They review restorative juvenile justice schemes in the US, New Zealand, Canada, Canberra (Australia), Scotland, and several British sites (Leeds, Coventry, Essex, Totton, and Wolverhampton). The book then shifts from young people to the adult criminal justice system schemes that are the heart of the book.  The majority of the several hundred cases examined used the Transformative Justice Australia scheme as part of the Justice Research Consortium (JRC) project in London, Thames Valley and Northumbria. A smaller number of schemes were based on the Australian RISE or Reintegrative Shaming Experiments, begun with police run conferences in 1995 in Canberrra. 

The capsule overview of these two schemes or models serves the purpose of this book and may serve as a catalyst for the reader to learn more about these two highly regarded approaches. In each, the persons responsible for harmful (criminal) behavior and their supporters or family are brought together (if they voluntarily agree to do so) with those harmed by the behavior (victims). 

Thankfully, for a research report on government funded ‘pilot’ programs the number of data-laden charts is minimal. The focus of the book lies with case study analyses of how these adult victim–offender conferences are offered, delivered, and followed up on with defendants and victims.  How can the facilitator prepare (pre-conference) the victim, offender and support persons so that their meeting is most effective? 

Real people were shown meeting with other real people, with a variety of results: reduced recidivism, a post conference plan or agreement, and sometimes simply the best results that ‘justice’ can offer. Shapland, et. al. understand that human behavior is complex, that offenders may have treatment needs, and that not all cases will lend themselves to a RJ approach.

Without offering criticism of existing justice protocols or comment on incarceration and recidivism rates, they look realistically at RJ in the world of police and court and prisons and suggest that it is another tool, not a panacea. They suggest that RJ is “a better thing to do than not” and that RJ in adult justice systems (guided by something like a Hippocratic oath) might make the criminal justice world a better place for all.  

A strength of the ‘report’ is that is asks more questions than it answers. Virtually every aspect of the research schemes are examined from a practical standpoint. Can programs work with only moderately trained facilitators? Are police officers or law enforcement personnel able to function as neutral facilitators? How can the facilitator, to use Mark Umbreits' term, ‘function in the foreground’ or remain out of the way of the process?  

Can adult criminal justice conferences or victim-offender mediation be kept confidential as they are in school discipline, juvenile justice and some neighborhood dispute resolution programs? Where is the best place to hold the meeting when the offender is not incarcerated? Should referrals be screened for appropriateness or will the scheme work with all potential clients where there is an individual (not corporate) victim and an offender who admits culpability? 

What code, laws or legislative changes are needed to afford fairness in restorative processes? What routine ‘risk assessments’ are needed to insure that the program insures safety as well as integrity? They politely note that regardless of nation or location, change is slow within the criminal justice system. They suggest that just as international standards and training protocols have now been developed in the field of mediation, similar standards and training are needed for RJ. 

The final part of the book is a gold mine for those eager to learn more. The reference section gives web site information for a variety of reports, legislation and even training manuals. There is no need to go to a library shelf to peek into the work of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), Australian Canberra Police Reintegrative Shaming experiments, the British reports from the Home Office/Ministry of Justice or germane Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) project reports.  

The twelve-page compilation of references and the ten-page list of chapter by chapter notes is impressive.  The authors promised to provide “essential reading” for students and practioners. They have met that promise in regard to both their description of applications of RJ in the adult justice system (pre-trial, during sentencing formulation, and post sentencing) and in their many probing questions regarding RJ in general.  

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