Restorative Justice - Proceed with Care
Restorative justice is an approach for dealing with the damage sustained by individuals and/or society as a result of offending behaviour. It became popular in the late 1990’s and subsequently developed into an accepted technique to patch up the relationship between the victims and offenders of crimes. By 2006 a range of authorities used this approach as part of their procedures in dealing with ‘crime’ including police, judges, politicians and victim support groups. The practice of restorative justice eventually found its way into schools and in some cases, it became so important it underpinned their discipline policies. I understand the attraction of this approach, in theory everyone thrives but there are times when this is really inappropriate and damaging especially to the victim.
Restorative justice is a procedure where all stakeholders affected by an injustice together confront the situation and have the opportunity to clarify what happened, how it affected them and how to repair the relationships. This process has been commercialised by a number of organisations and they present their structured approach to this process. What they have in common is that a meeting is organised by a facilitator between the victim and the offender with the aim of having the perpetrator listen to the victim’s statement so they accept the impact of their behaviour and empathise with the victim.
The facilitator would guide the meeting following a process based on similar questions as those below:
- Who has been hurt?
- What are their needs?
- Whose obligations are these?
- What are the causes?
- Who has a stake in the situation?
- What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and put things right?
In 2013 the Cochrane Developmental, Psychosocial and Learning Problems Group based in London, in a review of this process stressed the need for the offender to meet the victim face-to-face. They suggested that it is effective because:
- The offender has to learn about the harm they have caused to their victim, making it hard for them to justify their behavior.
- It offers a chance to discuss moral development to offenders who may have had little of it in their life.
- Offenders are more likely to view their punishment as legitimate.
An extension of this approach occurs when the perpetrators explain what motivated their behaviour, what they wanted to achieve. This allows the perpetrator to give their side of the story. The programs tend to avoid shaming and stigmatizing the offender however, for the children we focus on, this public exposure to their inappropriate behaviour reinforces their sense of worthlessness. Their personal experience of toxic shame; that they haven’t done something bad to others but they are bad for others.
This leads to the first of my concerns, understanding the power of the victim! Experienced teachers who have worked with severely dysfunctional children will have witnessed the power of being a victim. These kids will consciously or even unconsciously ‘annoy’ a fellow student who has little control over their behaviours. They can be barefaced in their attempt to get the ‘perpetrator’ to lash-out at them, it’s as easy as insulting their mother! When the perpetrator attacks the ‘victim’ he or she runs to the authority for protection. Less subtle ways use behaviours described as passive-aggressive where the victim continually ‘annoys’ the perpetrator by just being ‘around’ until they get sick of them and they ‘attack’ them.
The diagram below illustrates this connection.
This becomes a cycle: when the victim informs the facilitator, this is an act of aggression against the aggressor because they expect the aggressor will be punished. If the facilitator is not mindful of the manipulation taking place, they will punish the aggressor who has now taken on the role of victim. This use of victim power is not likely to be revealed in any restorative justice approach. It requires the expertise of the facilitator, it is unlikely any student with a history of abuse or neglect would have the insight to point this out.
A second concern is an inequity of the relative personal power of the aggressor and victim. Some students develop disorders that attract the diagnosis of narcissism, sociopathy or even psychopathy. These students care little about the feelings of their victims and in fact they enjoy seeing them suffer. This presents a huge problem for meetings facilitated using a restorative justice approach. You can rest assured that both the victim and perpetrator know where each stands; the victim understands they are no match for the perpetrator and the latter will even enjoy playing with the facilitator. I have seen these people in action, to the uninformed facilitator the perpetrator will admit to all their wrong-doings, they are only too willing to apologize to the victim. Both the perpetrator and the victim know that if the victim doesn’t declare satisfaction with the process and ‘forgive’ the perpetrator once the process is over they will be dealt with! In these cases, the facilitator will report an ‘excellent outcome’ where punishment was avoided!
The danger of using restorative justice practices for disputes between individuals is fraught with danger. Of course, there are cases where the approach will benefit all involved but this is not as likely when you are dealing with students whose dysfunctional behaviour caused the dispute. These very damaged kids do not have the personal qualities developed to undertake what is a relatively sophisticated process. This is why our approach of providing structure, expectations within a caring and supportive environment is important. Eventually these kids will start to develop the qualities of trust and a healthy sense of their own worth. If this can be achieved then these students could benefit from restorative justice but we would hope that by then there would be no need of this approach!