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Restorative Justice Theory and Practice: Mind the Gap!

Theo Gavrielides, a researcher at the London School of Economics, recently completed a qualitative investigation of possible discrepancies between the implementation of restorative justice practices and the development of restorative justice theory.

 A new era for RJ; but where to go? 

In the light of the numerous international and European legislative changes, policy documents, position statements, background papers and research findings advocating in favour of Restorative Justice (RJ), the UK government has finally acknowledged that it is now time to move RJ to a different level. Its first official step was taken with the release of a consultation paper (Strategy Document) on its policy on RJ[1]. In the foreword, the Home Secretary noted: “We are still learning about where RJ works best…good research evidence is important…if [RJ] provides better quality justice, it could be an investment worth making”. 

This call for additional evidence led to the carrying out of a new qualitative study with practitioners, researchers and policy makers in the RJ field. In fact, its impetus came from initial fears of discrepant patterns in the way RJ’s theory and practice have developed in the last thirty years[2]

Showing the Way 

The survey started in June 2002 and finished in August 2003, only days after the release of the Strategy Document. It was divided into two phases. The first included the analysis of forty questionnaires that were sent to practitioners, researchers and evaluators from the criminal justice systems of eight countries. All respondents, irrespective of what their current profession is, had experienced RJ on a practical level, while at the time of writing, almost no one had their views on the questionnaires’ themes published. The survey also found it important that it addressed a sample that would represent both models in which Western criminal procedures have been divided:  Adversarial/Common Law (Sample from: the UK, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa) and Inquisitorial/Continental (Sample from: Spain, Austria, Italy).  

The analysis of the questionnaires had three main outcomes. First, it generated data that allowed the testing of the central hypothesis. In particular, it provided direct and indirect evidence, which showed that a great number of RJ practitioners are not interested in its theoretical principles. In fact, it appeared that many believe that if practice is to move forward then it should only be informed by previous or additional practice and empirical evidence on ‘what works’. Others believe that there has been a lot done in the theoretical world of RJ, and that what is really needed now is to shift the focus to its actual application. On the other hand, theoreticians were accused of being distant or even detached from reality. They sometimes expound philosophies that do not take into account the day-to-day mundane problems of practice, and this usually results in producing theories that are weak in their applicability, or sometimes defective. Second, it identified four themes that appeared to be problematic in RJ’s development, and which occurred due to the discrepancy. These included: (a) the way RJ is understood and defined (b) the way it is funded by governmental and other private funding bodies (c) the way facilitators are trained and (d) the way programmes are put into practice, and the effect that the process has on the restorative nature of their outcomes. Finally, it made suggestions on how to bridge the gap between the theoretical and practical development of RJ, addressing the above four problematic themes. 

The second phase included interviews with almost all major stakeholders in RJ’s current and future development in England and Wales. These included: the Home Office, the Youth Justice Board, Victim Support, Mediation UK, Thames Valley Police, the Restorative Justice Consortium, the Justice Research Consortium, CONNECT and Prison Reform Trust. The questions followed up the above four themes, and aimed at collecting information as to what these organisations thought about them. Each interviewee stressed what appeared to be most problematic in their eyes, and this was usually associated with their organisational responsibilities and primary interests. 

In general, phase two of the study confirmed the overall conclusion of the questionnaires about a discrepancy in RJ’s development. In addition, by focusing on the criminal justice system of England and Wales it provided further evidence relating to this system. The discrepancy was mainly attributed to the difference that exists between the practical priorities of the various schemes and mediation programmes and the abstract theoretical norms of RJ’s concept. In other words, a great number of the practical problems that are associated with the every day application of RJ (a) are not dealt with by applying the theoretical principles that are available in the literature (b) are sometimes caused because people that implement RJ do not always use the principles in the first place (c) even if when some practitioners seek guidance from the theoretical work that has been done in the field or from empirical research on ‘what works’, the first is sometimes too distant from reality while the latter is not updated or well carried out. The result of this is having practice walking most of the times without theory by its side, and vice versa. One interviewee said: “My impression is that practitioners are leading practitioners…” while someone else claimed: “The RJ theory doesn’t suit practice…I think practice should be now driving evaluation and additional practice…theory is holding practice back…” 

The study concluded by attempting suggestions on how to move RJ forward keeping in mind the importance of addressing all the above organisations’ concerns without putting at stake RJ’s original normative values. Overall, the conclusions drawn address most of the consultation questions of the Strategy Document. 

The full report will be published soon. For further information contact:

Theo Gavrielides, Researcher, LSE

T.Gavrielides@lse.ac.uk

[2] Theory was defined as the group of the core normative values that form RJ’s backbone, while practice is understood as the collection of the programmes through which it is put in action as well as the empirical projects that are conducted to evaluate its effectiveness.

 

December  2003

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