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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.