Intern Grace Hughes’ second research summary focuses on the delivery of restorative justice in practice. Here, she reviews Jane Bolitho’s Putting justice needs first: A case study of best practice in restorative justice (2015, Restorative Justice: An International Journal, 3(2), 256-281), which uses empirical data from restorative conferences with serious offences to propose that restorative justice practices should focus on identifying and meeting individuals’ needs.
Bolitho presents findings from an empirical study of victim-offender conferencing (VOC) with victims and adult offenders convicted of serious offences in Australia. Studying 76 conferences that took place over 14 years (with a 95% success rate) and conducting 135 interviews, Bolitho argues that conferencing should be mainstreamed and that a ‘justice needs’ framework (Toews, 2006) can help explain victims’ motivations, experiences and outcomes.
This article presents findings from a study that used mixed-methods to research victim-offender conferencing processes and outcomes. It describes restorative justice as a contemporary justice innovation with two main challenges. Firstly, restorative justice remains on the periphery of Western criminal justice: its use is both ‘boutique’ and ‘tokenistic’. Secondly, criminologists often find it uneasy to discover that their initial reactions are more at the ‘gut level’ than rational when analysing restorative justice methods.
Restorative justice (RJ) is perhaps the most researched justice innovation of the 21st century, with a considerable diversity and quality of data gathered. RJ practices generally share several principles, including valuing relationships, dialogue and processes over the outcome. However, practices can diverge in ways that make their comparison difficult. RJ takes on myriad forms, with or without the presence of the victim or the offender, and at different points in the criminal justice system, such as a diversion from court or pre-sentence. Questions remain, however, as to what specifically is offered within an RJ process and why it works.
The Restorative Justice Unit is a small unit of six staff in Australia, which manages a victims’ register and runs a post-sentencing victim-offender conferencing service. The objectives are to meet the unmet justice needs of victims of crime in the aftermath of adult crimes. It provides victims with a voice and an opportunity for the offender to be held directly accountable.
Bolitho’s study explored 74 of the 76 victim offender conferences completed by the Restorative Justice Unit between 1999 and 2013. They reconstructed completed cases, analysing 60 case files, as well as interviewing 60 original facilitators. They also studied fourteen ongoing cases, interviewing the participants before and after (103 interviews in all), and observing twelve of the conferences. Finally, as a follow-up study, they interviewed 32 persons five years after their conference to explore their experiences.
All victims within this research presented with at least one negative and longstanding effect of the offence. Victims were prompted to discuss the impact of the crimes over time, probing for experiences of intrusion, avoidance and negative changes to thoughts and moods that affected them over time. Severe, long-lasting harm was evident, with victims describing how the crime still permeated their everyday lives. Two common themes emerged. Firstly, the impact of crime on relationships; secondly, the experience of grief in conjunction with fear and anger. Victims further noted frustration that the court process was time consuming and ineffective at securing satisfaction. Legally mediated truth was another theme, and left victims and offenders feeling dissatisfied. For example, when an offender pleaded guilty, the victims often felt that the court process did not address their need to hear and speak about what happened and why.
Bolitho uses Toews’ framework to understand the concept of “unmet justice needs” for victims. In 95% of cases studied, the evidence suggested that the majority of articulated “unmet justice needs” were met by the restorative process. In the five-year follow up, participants’ views about positivity and emotional wellbeing emerging from the conference were expressed.
This research identified three key components for success: the structure, the facilitators and the ability for the conference to be an emotionally transforming space. The research found that it was possible to practice a victim-oriented RJ process safely and usefully, in cases where adults were convicted of serious and violent crimes. Moreover, there was strong evidence to suggest that conferencing offered a safe restorative encounter and provided offenders, victims and their loved ones with a sense of justice.
The facilitator was integral and their role cannot be overstated. The trusting relationship with the participants builds from the moment the intervention begins, and continues all the way to the final debrief. Good practices was guided by a ‘do no harm’ principle and a recognition that re-traumatization is possible throughout the process. Strategies were employed to minimise the risk and tailor the process to each case.
With regard to RJ training, each practitioner had experience working with violent offenders in a prison or in the community. Interventions were successful because the articulated needs of victims were met throughout the referral and preparation phases. Victims attended conferences to seek safety, information, accountability and empowerment. Bolitho concludes that facilitators should originate from a wide range of bodies, recognising the complexity of the restorative process and the need for practitioners to bring different ‘flavours’.