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Review: Walking the talk: Developing ethics frameworks for the practice of restorative justice

Nov 09, 2011

Walking the talk: Developing ethics frameworks for the practice of restorative justice. Susan Sharpe. Langley, BC, Canada: Community Justice Initiatives Association. 2011. 62 pages.

by Lynette Parker

While restorative justice is a theory that encompasses a set of values for how justice should be done, maintaining those values and the restorative focus can become difficult in day-to-day practice. People working in restorative justice organisations – whether staff or volunteers – make a myriad of decisions related to practices each day. Such decisions may be related to work with clients, work with other organisations or internal processes and interactions. How can they make these decisions while maintaining the integrity of their restorative justice programme?

Susan Sharpe seeks to answer this question with Walking the talk: Developing ethics frameworks for the practice of restorative justice. In the 62 page publication, Sharpe sets out a process that organisations and individual practitioners can use to develop an ethics framework to empower and guide decisionmaking. In doing so, she avoids the contentious issue of setting standards by developing the steps in a process that each organisation can use to develop a framework that has direct meaning for it and the various issues that it faces.

The publication consists of five sections starting with an introduction to outline the purpose of the document and the approach to be taken. Sharpe says that Walking the talk is for “anyone concerned about the sound application of restorative justice philosophy – in whatever form of practice that takes, whatever institutions it works in, whatever harms it addresses, and whatever it is called.” She offers the following definitions for key terms:

  • “Restorative justice” refers to a philosophical orientation, not to a programme or a practice or a set of practices.
  • "Ethics" refers to the motivations, concerns, or efforts that reflect a desire to contribute to a common good that lies beyond one’s personal identity or organisational mission.
  • "Ethics framework" means a set of values, priorities, and principles that provide on-going guidance to an individual or to the people in an organisation.

In section two on ethics frameworks, Sharpe explores the limits of broad professional standards. While such documents are valuable, they may be too general to influence day-to-day decisionmaking. Furthermore, such standards often remain external to organisations. The ethics framework, on the other hand, is developed from the mission, vision, values and beliefs held within the organisation. In this way, the framework is more directly relevant to the work being carried out by staff and volunteers. In this way, it offers more effective guidance for their work.

Section three discusses how to cultivate an ethics framework. Sharpe starts by explaining that organisations have options for how complicated they want the process to be. This will be decided by organisational structure, time and resources available for the work. However, regardless of whether an organisation implements a formal process or and decides on an informal evaluation, there are four steps to creating an ethics framework:

  • Review the context of your work.
  • Align your choices with your organisation’s overarching purpose, its strongest vision, and its primary goals.
  • Translate your priorities into principles and your values into actions
  • Evaluate the fit, the effectiveness and the consequences of your ethical choices

Sharpe provides guidance on how to explore these various aspects of the organisation to construct the ethical framework. For example, in terms of vision and purpose she provides several questions to help think through these issues in terms of the ethical choices the organisation has to make. She also provides guidance on how to think through the organisation’s position on topics that are contentious within restorative justice:

  • Consistency of process
  • The question of punishment
  • Comparability with conventional sanctions
  • Consistency of outcomes
  • Communication guidelines
  • Voluntary choice
  • Offender responsibility
  • Developing participant agreements
  • Facilitator role in shaping agreements
  • Facilitator expertise
  • Facilitator training
  • Restorative justice and sexualized assault or domestic violence

Again, Sharpe doesn’t provide specific standards or rules. Instead she provides questions and guidance for thinking though these issues and developing an organisation position and framework in relation to them.

In section four, Sharpe starts by saying, “…strengthening your ethics framework is about charting your path in relation to what others need from you, and in ways that build credibility and trust – for your own agency and also for the restorative justice field.  The questions she explores include:

  • Review: Where are you in relation to others?
  • Align: What is important about your relationships?
  • Translate: What does this look and sound like?
  • Evaluate: How productive are these choices?

Section five changes focus slightly to provide guidance to those engaging with restorative justice organisations. These include people who may be considering using the service or recommending the service; professionals thinking about referring cases; donors looking to grant money; and potential volunteers or staff people. Sharpe proposes some issues to think about and questions to ask about the agency to evaluate whether or not to engage with the organisation.

The strength of Walking the talk lies in its focus on developing processes and providing guidance for thinking about the various issues related to developing an ethical framework. In this way, it offers a tool that can be used across cultures and organisation types. The publication is available as a free download from the Community Justice Initiatives Association.

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