L. Hogan – Restorative Justice

« Restorative Justice: the Bonds of Mercy »

by Linda Hogan

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Restorative justice has become an important feature of the evolving discourse and practice of justice and has begun to transform many of the traditional, deeply held views about its nature and purpose. Often contrasted rather too simplistically with justice as retribution, the essence of restorative justice is that it requires, at a minimum, ‘that we address victims’ harms and needs, hold offenders accountable to put right those harms, and involve victims, offenders, and communities in this process’.[1] This minimalist definition captures effectively the core of restorative justice. It demands accountability of offenders, seeks to repair the harm done to victims and regards the victim, offender and community as stakeholders in the process of this repair. Indeed, this relational dynamic involving  victim, offender, and community is at the heart of the transformation that restorative justice seeks to achieve.

Definitions abound, and in different parts of the world certain practices aimed at achieving restorative justice have been tried, sometimes effectively. The values and principles of restorative justice have thus far been deployed primarily in two contexts: in the administration of criminal justice and in political situations where the persistence of inherited, systemic injustice is an ongoing cause of political conflict. In the case of criminal justice systems, much of the impetus to employ the principles of restorative justice arose from the recognition that the law-and-order agenda, with its harsh version of retributive justice has, by and large, failed to reduce crime, satisfy victims, or rehabilitate offenders. Of course many citizens believe that even harsher punishment would eventually have a positive impact on crime rates and recidivism. However, the evidence on the effectiveness of harsh punishment regimes, to date, is inconclusive.[2] Into this space therefore has emerged a practitioner-led movement that seeks to establish a restorative justice system alongside the retributive one, thus reshaping the administration of criminal justice by adding a restorative strand where it is most appropriate and effective.

In the international political context, the impetus has arisen from what is described as ‘the liberal peace agenda’, that is, the growing recognition that the establishment of just social and political institutions across the world can only occur when there is a concomitant commitment to deal with the injustices of the past, and with the structural vulnerabilities that these produce in the present. From Northern Ireland to South Africa, from Timor-Leste to Guatemala, the principles and practices of restorative justice have formed an important part of the efforts to create a political reconciliation. Successes have been modest and relative, yet the desire to create peaceful and just societies in the shadow of systemic violence and embedded inequalities supports the view that reconciliation will only be possible with the healing of relationships long-broken.

[1] Howard Zehr, Little Book of Restorative Justice, Vermont: Good Books, 2002, p. 25.

[2] See Hannah Graham Rehabilitation Work: Supporting Desistance and Recovery, New York: Routledge, 2016, and Pamela Ugwudike (ed.), What Works in Offender Compliance: International Perspectives and Evidence-based Practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave 2013.

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