Restorative justice often involves victims, offenders, and community members meeting to discuss the effects of harmful behaviour and finding ways for offenders to make amends. Participants might be asked questions by a facilitator such as What happened? What were you thinking of or feeling at the time/since? Who has been affected? It is plausible to think that people with greater verbal ability will be able to give more expressive – and therefore effective – answers to such questions. This is problematic if socioeconomic background affects an individual’s linguistic development.

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My research examines whether and how social class influences participation in scripted restorative justice by affecting how participants communicate. In an article appearing in the next edition of Criminology and Criminal Justice, I present data from an ethnographic study that indicates restorative justice implementation is not class-neutral because it appears to privilege middle-class forms of communication. Consequently, I propose that participants from middle-class backgrounds may be more powerfully positioned in restorative justice processes than participants from less advantaged backgrounds.

To show this, I adopt a comparative methodology, which involves ethnographic observation and critical discussion of two contrasting restorative justice conferences. In the first case, a mother and daughter from an English council estate struggle to explain the harm caused by an act of violence. In the second case, a family from a neighbouring affluent village compellingly describe the injury inflicted when an unleashed dog bit their child. Although both victims’ families were seemingly given equal time and opportunity to answer the scripted restorative justice questions, each family was not equally equipped with the formal language to answer them fully.

Consequently, I suggest that victims from disadvantaged backgrounds who struggle to express themselves in the required restorative way risk having their harms under-appreciated. Similarly, offenders from disadvantaged backgrounds who are unfamiliar with the restorative communicative style risk being (mis)interpreted as insincere. Consequently, there may be disproportional outcomes for disadvantaged individuals who participate in restorative justice.

Perhaps the presence of facilitators and supporters who understand the relevant cultural aspects of class could bring about more equal opportunity during scripted restorative justice conferencing. Or, as I suspect is more likely, perhaps social inequality in our society runs too deep, and so itself must be addressed first and foremost before restorative justice participants can be on a level footing.

As ethnographic data, my results cannot be generalized, and further research is needed. But even as preliminary findings, a critical question is raised: can restorative justice ensure equal opportunity for participation irrespective of class background?

Willis, R. (2018), ‘‘Let’s talk about it’: Why social class matters to restorative justice’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, available online first here.

Willis, R. (full ethnography), ‘A Precarious Life: Understanding Conflict in a Deindustrialised Town’, forthcoming, Oxford University Press.