Post by Naomi-Ellen Speechley, researcher at the Centre for Criminology

The Community of Restorative Researchers is an interdisciplinary network, uniting academics and practitioners working in restorative justice (RJ) to promote an open and critical dialogue. On 7 July 2015, I attended the network’s first conference, hosted by doctoral researcher and network coordinator Ian Marder (University of Leeds), which aimed to consider the role of state versus non-state actors when developing, delivering, and regulating restorative justice.

Ian’s welcoming address called for a need for collaboration and cohesion between RJ practitioners, particularly given the growing number of localized and widely varied RJ programmes. Against the context of scant state monitoring, Ian located this trend as being somewhere between a ‘thing of beauty’ and a ‘disorganized mess.’ The conference adopted an innovative approach by using panel discussions as a platform for contributors to exchange views from their own areas, rather than calling for papers, thereby enabling conflicting viewpoints to be explored and challenged through conversation.

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The opening discussion in the first panel focused on the involvement of non-state actors in developing, delivering, and regulating RJ in the UK. Chairing the first panel, the Centre for Criminology’s Roxana Wills, a DPhil candidate, asked the panel to clarify how different organisations understand and implement restorative justice. Andrew Hancock (Darlington Neighbourhood Resolution) explained that offenders sometimes found prison easier than speaking to their victims, and that restorative approaches offered the power to give people a tool to resolve and reconcile the harm done. He referenced the positive effects that mediation has had within youth offending teams, noting that community support was crucial to tackle antisocial behavior and community-based crime. Ali Gohar (Just Peace Initiatives) built on Andrew’s support for taking criminal justice back into community level, explaining that if people feel that they own something―be it an organisation, network, or programme―they’ll look after it. Jon Collins (Restorative Justice Council) pointed out that most people are still unfamiliar with the term restorative justice and that it’s being crowbarred into a criminal justice system that isn’t well designed to implement it. He highlighted the need to individualize restorative measures. Countering the often-raised argument that RJ is only applicable to some crimes, Jon argued that if correctly tailored, restorative measures can work for cases of abduction, rape, and domestic violence. Andrew supported this viewpoint by referencing Durham Police’s implementation of restorative measures for domestic violence. Going forward, Jon stated that for a service to be backed by Police and Crime Commissioners, it needs a restorative service quality mark in order to evidence its benefits.

The conference’s second panel centred on the involvement of state actors in developing, delivering, and regulating RJ in the UK. It was comprised of Jonathan Doak (Durham University), Nicola Preston (International Institute of Restorative Practices), and Becky Beard (Restorative Gloucestershire), and was chaired by Elizabeth Tiarks (Durham University). Debating whether a centralized RJ provider would work, Becky argued that the varied and localized needs of individual areas were too different to be adequately met by a sole body or a set service. She further warned that restorative measures don’t always work as they are expected to, because offenders are often victims too (or feel like them). Therefore, progress lies in working with offenders’ motivations to stop reoffending, such as their responsibilities towards family members. Jonathan added that RJ works best at a localized level; consequently, there are inherent risks in trying to set up an umbrella service. However, he argued that there’s a need for services to be ‘joined up’ and consistent. Nicola drew from her teaching experience, advising that it’s crucial to monitor the content of any restorative provision closely, but that organisations like the Restorative Justice Council should oversee performance. Becky argued that RJ should be co-facilitated by community volunteers and paid staff who had no stake in the conflict. Although police officers could be suitable facilitators, this could cause tension for community-police relations. Nicola suggested that given the importance of neutrality, it was irrelevant whether facilitators were state or non-state actors because, essentially, it’s the person’s skills and knowledge that count most.

The conference keynote, ‘Creating Restorative Collaborations,’ was delivered by Deborah Mitchell (RJ Working Community Interest Company and University of Exeter). She began by defining RJ as encompassing ‘safe, supported, voluntary communication between the person harmed and the person who caused harm, for the purpose of pair and recovery,’ qualifying this by warning that each word is deceptively simple. Deborah showed a video depicting a prisoner mocking the suggestion of meeting and talking to his victim, only agreeing after considering that it might improve his record. The clip demonstrated the complexities involved in arranging restorative measures because the motives aren’t always readily apparent and the benefits can become obscured. Deborah identified the main barriers to collaboration between practitioners: competition for cases, funding, a win/lose philosophy, territorial behavior, overzealous control, and refusal to share strategies and resources. To counter this, she suggested ‘alliance contracting’―a technique borrowed from the construction industry, whereby individual providers co-contract their services to secure cooperation and collaboration in order to see a project completed.

The speakers prompted some valuable discussion, collectively identifying potential opportunities for RJ practitioners to collaborate with schools, social workers, and student placements as well as police, which creates a ripple effect into education and family care, fostering potential crime prevention effects. In his closing remarks, Ian reflected on the need to increase restorative training and awareness, and the promising potential for former offenders to become facilitators, or for university students to be considered as a resource, often having more time and focus than professionals.

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The difficulties of implementing RJ were also acknowledged, particularly the concern that current funding structures don’t facilitate collaboration. Police and Crime Commissioners are expected to find the ‘best deal,’ pitting delivery organisations against each other, leading to over-promising and under-delivering. However, this only increases the need for RJ practitioners, organisations, and researchers to work together. The real benefit of the conference was facilitating exactly the kind of knowledge exchange that Ian called for. A straw poll of attendees confirmed this opinion, itself evidence of a turn towards greater coordination and cooperation between researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders.