We are starting this editorial by stating the obvious – conflicts and harmful relationships are experiences that occur naturally throughout our lives. It is so because we are different. The obviousness of this statement starts to dim when we question whether we take this reality as a non-changeable fact or we decide to overcome it and prevent it from reoccurring by using the body of knowledge acquired from practice and research. Self-determination, defined as the ability to decide and to take responsibility for one’s decisions, is a characteristic not only of individuals, but also of institutions and societies. Some of us are better than others at being self-determined. Irrespectively though, when knowledge is available, it is each and everyone’s responsibility to use it in order to make our private and public lives positive and fulfilling experiences.
Restorative justice is part of this body of knowledge, and it has been available in the past 40 years, emerging in the social arena as an alternative to the traditional, more or less impersonal, criminal justice process. Restorative justice includes approaches, strategies, practices and processes that help address and repair, from a strong personal perspective, the harm caused by the different types of conflicts that we are part of throughout our lives. Conflicts are the property of individuals, as Nils Christie said. So why not engage individuals in finding the ways to repair those relationships that have been damaged by harmful experiences? There is a fine line between aiming to engage individuals and to give them the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, and actually doing so. Societies have developed a large variety of mechanisms that aim at asking individuals to be accountable, but in the process of doing so end up making decisions for them, instead of them. Social mechanisms such as the punishment (used by criminal justice institutions) or custody measures (used by child protection agencies), just to give two examples, need to find ways to better engage individuals and to give them back the responsibility for their actions in order for them to become truly accountable and to be empowered for meaningful social participation. Taking the restorative path is one way of achieving these. For individuals is a choice, but we need to work at making this choice available to as many as possible. We need to be constant at asking questions such as: Are the mechanisms that are available across different systems motivating individuals to take accountability for their actions? Are these mechanisms truly engaging individuals in decision-making processes that concern their wellbeing or the wellbeing of their significant ones? What other mechanisms can be used to increase the opportunities of individuals for meaningful social participation? How does restorative justice fit with all of the above? Is restorative justice seen as a path that gives back to individuals their power to decide on matters important to them, as well as the responsibilities that come with such decisions?
This special issue of the Social Work Review aims at providing possible answers to such questions. It gathers a variety of conceptual debates about restorative justice and its current development, experiences with the implementation of restorative practices and processes in different areas, research results on the effectiveness of restorative approaches to crimes and conflicts – all providing arguments for taking the restorative path within systems such as criminal justice, social work, education and the workplace. The articles are signed by both academics and practitioners from different parts of the world: Belgium, Croatia, England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, the People’s Republic of China, Romania, and the United States. The ordering of the papers is not random – we aimed for the reader to be first introduced into the field or restorative justice, and gradually progress to specific issues that concern the transformations that are happening with the transition of restorative justice to a science and culture, and the transference of restorative practices across different domains.
The article to break the ice is signed by Ted Wachtel, founder and former President of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), the world’s first graduate school wholly devoted to restorative practices. Wachtel’s article comes in the form of an essay articulating a vision of restorative justice as a new social science that has at its core the hypothesis that ‘individuals, families and communities do best when they have more voice and more choice, in exchange for taking greater responsibility’ (8). He also gathers under this conceptual umbrella a vast range of evidence that supports the application of restorative approaches with families and youth, in criminal justice, in social work, in education and in the workplace, and essentially shows how we can work restoratively to (re)build relationships.
Moving from vision to day-to-day practice, the following article signed by Belinda Hopkins, Director of Transforming Conflicts and pioneer in the application of restorative practices in school settings across UK, brings into focus what any institution, organization and workplace needs to do in order to implement a restorative milieu. Hopkins excellently synthesizes her 15 years-long experience into a practical (we would say easy-to-digest) model for practitioners, called the 5:5:5 model, arguing that ‘What people need is a clear, consistent, replicable, and teachable framework for their practice, enabling people to feel secure that they understand “the way we do things around here” in their daily work’ (24). She shows what it actually means to ‘act restoratively’ and ‘be restorative’, and provides concrete examples on how to use restorative principles to change internal staff culture, how good leadership can make a difference, and how restorative approaches can impact positively on institutional outcomes.
But, in spite of all the evidence brought forward by these authors and so many others that restorative justice works, its wider implementation is hindered. The following article signed by two researchers, Malini Laxminarayan, Project Coordinator with the Hague Institute for Global Justice in the Netherlands, and Annemieke Wolthuis, Senior Researcher with the Verwey-Jonker Institute in the Netherlands, addresses one of the barriers to greater accessibility of restorative justice – the negative attitudes of legal professionals and the general public towards such an approach. The authors bring evidence from a European research project called ‘Accessibility and Initiation of Restorative Justice’ coordinated by the European Forum for Restorative Justice and conducted in partnership with organizations from 6 European countries (Croatia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Sweden). In addition to evidence of this existing barrier, the study also provides practical ideas that, if implemented, higher referrals to restorative justice could be expected throughout Europe.
The special issue of the Social Work Review continues with a sub-series of articles that focus on bringing more evidence on the possible use of restorative approaches in particular fields such as criminal justice, social work and education. The first of this sub-series is signed by Tim Chapman, Lecturer with the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, and Donna Murray, Youth Conference Coordinator with the Youth Justice Agency in Northern Ireland. The authors present the results of a qualitative study, sampling young offenders that took part in the Priority Youth Offending Project, an experimental project using a restorative practice model based on Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA). The study showed that young offenders’ participation in COSAs increased their access to social capital and reduced their risk of reoffending. In spite of such evidence, an endnote of the authors shows that ‘Since this study, the Youth Justice Agency has experienced cuts in its resources and has been unable to sustain the PYOP and while COSAs are encouraged they are rarely implemented’ (59). Such a statement needs for sure another space for analysis, as the simple rationale of ‘if it works, it is desired’ was evidently not enough in this case.
The following article remains in the registry of criminal justice. Signed by Gabriel Oancea, Chief Probation Officer in Bucharest, Romania, and Mihai Ioan Micle, Senior Researcher at the Romanian Academy, the article presents the results of a quantitative study conducted on a small sample of 94 offenders under probation. The study aimed at identifying the offenders’ perceptions regarding the impact of their crimes on the victims and possible connections with their perceptions on the punishment received and their willingness to repair the harm caused. The results showed that in spite of the fact that most of the offenders acknowledge their guilt and agree with the punishment received, don’t perceive their offence as having a great impact on their victims physically, emotionally and relationally, but still make efforts to pay the financial compensations imposed by the court especially when they were involved in prior mediation processes. The authors point out that the offenders’ lack of empathy towards their victims is bound to foster future engagement in criminal activities and that the simple acknowledgement of guilt is just a position ‘adopted to prove a formal evidence of regret’ (71). They conclude by saying that more research should be done in the area of penal mediation outcomes and that probation services should also focus on building the offenders’ empathy towards their victims.
Moving away from Europe, to the People’s Republic of China, the next article presents the results of a qualitative study on the experiences of victims meeting their young offenders.
The article, signed by Xiaoyu Yuan, PhD Student at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and Xiaohua Di, Professor of Law at the Nanjing University in the People’s Republic of China, is build on data gathered from a sample of 7 cases that took part in a pilot project run by the district juvenile prosecutor’s office in Nanjing. The results not surprisingly show patterns of altruistic behavior among victims and a voiced need to rehabilitate the young offenders, which are closely linked with the Confucian teachings so much embedded in the Chinese culture. Interestingly, the results also show a disconnection of the practice from this culture through the excessive use of authority by the prosecutor that ‘decides when, where and in which case mediation can be initiated, and in which way it can proceed’ (85),moving the practice also further away from the principle of voluntary participation that is applied by Western societies. The authors point out that the Chinese practice ‘may provide a different understanding … as to what and who is to be restored … Instead of restoring an individual being through engagement on all sides, the importance is attached to the greater social good’ (88), mainly due to an accepted authoritarian political ethos and culture.
The following article is an essay signed by Shirley Jülich, Senior Lecturer at the Massey University in New Zealand, and Helen Bowen, Restorative Justice Practitioner also from New Zealand. The essay proposes a model of recovery from sexual violence that resulted from the authors’ work with adult victims of child sexual abuse. The utility of this model rests in the fact that it is ‘a tool [that can be used by justice professionals and practitioners] for not only assessing readiness [to engage in restorative processes] of the adult victim of sexual violence, both historical and current, but also predicting and preventing further victimization’ (99). The model of recovery of adult victims of sexual violence thus becomes a roadmap for those that wish to safely engage such victims in restorative processes.
Remaining in the registry of victims of violence, the next article signed by Theo Gavrielides, founder and Director of Independent Academic Research Studies (IARS), provides us with an analysis of the current restorative work that is undertaken in the United Kingdom with cases of domestic violence. The author founds his analysis on qualitative data gathered from practitioners and victims of domestic violence by way of interviews, focus groups and case studies. The issues that this study has raised mostly concern structural elements that impede or contribute to positive outcomes of using restorative approaches in cases of domestic violence. To name a few here: the perceptions of victims and offenders regarding what restorative justice is, the practitioners’ misunderstanding of what restorative justice in a domestic violence case encompasses, the need for more accurate risk assessments when referring such cases to restorative justice, the need for holistic services in which restorative justice is one of many ways of intervening etc.
And last but not least, the final article that concludes this issue is signed by Branka Peurača, Adjunct Lecturer, and Lucija Vejmelka, Senior Researcher, both based at the University of Zagreb in Croatia. The article is a semi-empirical study on the Croatian experience with the implementation of peer-mediation in schools. The authors are basing their analysis on different types of data, such as interviews and questionnaires with Croatian experts in the field of peer mediation, as well as the works of several Croatian scholars and activists and other available websites and publications of civil society organizations in Croatia that have done or still do work in the peer mediation field. The combination of these diverse sources of data resulted is a critical chronological analysis of the main stages of peer-mediation implementation in Croatian schools and of the structural, cultural and historical factors that have influenced its pathway.
Needless to say that in spite of the diversity of the articles included in this special issue, there are still many areas of restorative justice and parts of the world that have not been covered. With the current level of development that restorative justice has reached worldwide, it would have been utopian to even consider such a quest. But for the Social Work Review the topic of restorative justice is a premiere, and this special issue is an important addition to the Romanian academic publishing landscape in the field. We also hope that this endeavor is contributing to the international body of knowledge on restorative justice as well. It only remains for us to wish you a warm ‘Enjoy the reading!’.