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Restorative Justice

Billy Mitchell

The June, 2001 Voice of the Lark debate focused on the topic, '"Problem Families" or Families With Problems: The Politics of Community Responsibility'. Harry Maguire, from Community Restorative Justice, Aidan Perry, from Coalition of Communities Against Drugs (COCAD), Dublin, and Terry Robson of the University of Ulster, featured on the panel chaired by Paul Little of the IRSP. Greater Shankill Alternatives were invited to speak but at the last moment were unable to attend. We carry here Billy Mitchell's submission to the debate.


I apologise for missing the third "Voice of the Lark" event at Conway Mill. Given the subject under discussion I had hoped that a member of staff from Greater Shankill Alternatives could have participated. Unfortunately that was not possible and I would like to offer, albeit a bit late, a contribution to the debate on socially harmful activities.

Almost every city has within it a marginalised estate or inner city ghetto. Sometimes we falsely call them "problem estates" and the people who live there "problem people". A better and more accurate term would be "estates with problems" and "people with problems". Some of the most creative long-term solutions to the problems of our marginalised communities are coming from grass-roots community activists who have embraced the principles of Restorative Justice.

Much of what has been written about Restorative Justice programmes in the popular press bears little or no resemblance at all to the philosophy or to the practice of Restorative Justice as it is being worked out at community level. Even where interviews with practitioners have taken place, many of the resulting articles have been adversely coloured by selective reporting and personal prejudice.

Restorative Justice is not a technique to be applied to the formal criminal justice system to help make it work, nor is it some devious scheme designed by paramilitary groups to enable them to exercise control over their areas (although this may often happen). It is a genuine community response that seeks to address socially harmful activities in a restorative and non-violent manner.

Harmful Activities

At "Alternatives" we use the term "socially harmful activities" as a catchall for those activities, criminal and non-criminal, that are harmful to people living in community. Socially harmful activities take place in the community against members of the community, and are usually carried out by disaffected members of the community. Such activities undermine good community relations, frustrate community and economic development and invariably lead to a downward trend in the quality of life for people in the community. Dealing with socially harmful activities is therefore a community matter and it demands a strategic community response. Restorative Justice programmes can provide such a response inasmuch provided they are community led and community driven.

I am involved to some extent in the development of a number of community initiatives that have a Restorative Justice component and, contrary to media misrepresentation, they do not operate as alternatives to the formal justice system; nor are they controlled or manipulated by paramilitary organisations. On the contrary, they complement the formal justice system and are administered by accountable and transparent Management Committees comprised of representatives drawn from the statutory, voluntary and community sectors.

Principles of Best practice

Each of these initiatives follow the principles of best practice in both training and programme delivery and are subject to rigorous independent assessment and evaluation. There has been, and continues to be, constructive consultation with the police and other statutory and voluntary agencies having an interest in community safety and justice issues. Consultation with the police may not be possible in nationalist or republican communities, but in loyalist/unionist areas this is regarded as part of the unionist way of life and if we claim to be community-led and community-driven we must accept that consultation with the police and other statutory bodies is what our community wants.

The research that led to the development of Restorative Justice initiatives in unionist communities began some four years ago as a multi-agency response to rough 'justice'. The four-year lead-in period was essential to enable us to explore and to understand both the principles and the practice of Restorative Justice as it functions in other countries, and to ensure that our practitioners were properly trained in the various aspects of programme delivery.

The formal justice system and the Restorative Justice system are not contradictory. They simply approach justice from different, but complementary, perspectives. Whereas the formal justice system tends to focus on the laws that have been broken, Restorative Justice focuses on the harms that have been done to the individual victim and to the wider community. The first task of Restorative Justice is to work towards the restoration of victims, empowering them and responding to their needs as they see them.

Restorative Justice believes in the worth of the individual, even the individual who engages in socially harmful activities. Individuals can and do change and it is the task of the Restorative Justice practitioner to help facilitate such change. Where people do change we believe that the community must formally validate that change. This is one of the core values of Restorative Justice.

Restoration vs Retribution

The formal justice system is concerned primarily with punishment and retribution, not with reformation and restoration. Restorative Justice provides a complementary service by bridging the gap between retribution and restoration. Likewise, rough 'justice' does not consider reformation or restoration. It simply inflicts pain as punishment and generates a cycle of alienation, bitterness and ongoing anti-social activity. Restorative Justice is an alternative to unlawful and violent responses to socially harmful activities - an alternative to vengeance and the philosophy of "an eye for an eye".

The Restorative Justice practitioner does not have an investigative role and does not pass judgement or impose sanctions. His/her role is to support perpetrators in understanding, accepting and carrying out their obligations to make things right with their victim and with the wider community. Voluntary victim-offender mediation is an integral part of the Restorative Justice programme and can be a crucial step in validating the hurt that has been caused to the victim. It can also be a catalyst for change in the attitude and behaviour of the perpetrator.

The concerned Restorative Justice practitioner will encourage restoration and reconciliation rather than coercion and isolation, and will work towards the ultimate goal of facilitating change and of healing the broken relationship between the perpetrator, the victim and the community.

Restorative Justice is a non-violent and non-coercive response to socially harmful activity. Individuals participate on a voluntary basis only and none of our programmes support coercion, imposed sanctions, physical pain or expulsion. The ultimate goal of Restorative Justice is not to punish people but to reduce the incidence of socially harmful activity, to promote victim-offender reconciliation and to help to create safer communities.

Restorative Justice is not the only answer to addressing issues around socially harmful activities. On its own it will not achieve social change. It must therefore be part of a broader programme of community and economic development.



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