center for sustainable justice

Restorative Justice

Normally there are many people involved with conflicts and crimes other than the litigants, the perpetrator, the victim and the State. The personal ecosystems of all those involved will be damaged and all of the parties and ’stakeholders’ involved have an interest in regaining balance in their own ecosystems. Traditionally forms of circuit justice and family or community councils existed all around the world whereby all stakeholders are involved. This format provided all stakeholders with the opportunity to regain balance in the ecosystems in relation to the ’parties’ and other stakeholders. Our individualized justice system allows stakeholders to be left behind, however, whereby the damage the conflicts and crimes have inflicted on their ecosystems remain in place, without providing them with prospects for recovery.
Restorative Justice (RJ) is a modern collective name for all forms of circuit justice that is based on the repair of good mutual relationships between all those that directly or indirectly involved with the conflict or crime. In New Zealand, Family Group Conferencing (derived from a traditional Maori model) has been used as the primary approach to juvenile crime since 1989. Juveniles normally do not have any contact with the court until a Family Group Conference has been held. Where necessary the results of these deliberations are presented to a judge for approval. The system is also available as an option in the adult criminal justice system. A large number of countries, including Belgium, have followed the example of New Zealand, but in countries such as the Netherlands, Restorative Justice has not developed within the justice system yet. Restorative Justice has already obtained a strong position among neighborhood and social issues and in schools, however, (including ’Eigen Kracht’ Conferences[1], which is a system based on the New Zealand model of Family Group Conferencing).

In New Zealand, Maoris explained to me how Family Group Conferences traditionally work in their communities:

Conflicts and crimes are also seen as signs that something is lacking in the community.If nothing was wrong in the community the conflict or crime would not have arisen.Conflict and crime are therefore significant to the community.This leads the community to consider the way that the people interact with each other and to try and improve on that.This happens in Family Group Conferences (FGC).When there is a question of a serious conflict or crime that those involved cannot resolve on their own, the respected elders of the community or communities become involved.They call the parties (offenders and victims) and their extended families and friends and other stakeholders together to hold a Family Group Conference.These are ritual gatherings.Members of the community are obliged to participate in these meetingsand nobody is permitted to escape this civic duty.The atmosphere during an FGC is predominantly supportive.Everyone treats each other with respect and everybody is spoken to as a person.
An FGC comprises of three phases: In the first phase everyone is given a chance to speak, including and not limited to issues for which the FGC has been convened.Discussions are not only concerned with the conflict or offence.Each participant - not just the parties or a perpetrator - is addressed on his or her responsibilities.Likewise parents, family members and friends of an offender are asked why they did not know how to prevent the offender from committing the mistake.
During this round it becomes clear which problems exist within the circle and how each person’s responsibilities are perceived within the circle. During the second phase all participants (including the perpetrator of an offense) are given a chance to speak in succession to determine what is required to be able to lead a good life and to be able to interact with each other in a proper manner(the aspect of compensation is often included here for victims). During this phase it becomes clear which needs exist within the circle, both individually and collectively, and what is needed to restore confidence and to become able to cooperate with each other in a constructive manner again.
During the third phase each participant indicates what he or she wants to do or offer to meet the needs that have been expressed during the second phase.Participants then make agreements with each other in this regard, under the supervision of the elders. As a result of the conflict or crime a range of agreements is reached between the participants of the circle, whereby the parties will have identified a format with which they can continue, which also includes the perpetrators and victims, so that the offender can be rehabilitated and so that all of the participants can help each other to provide a better life for everyone.By following through with the agreements made the perpetrator reconnects him or herself with the community as he or she cleans the slate.The person is then again fully accepted within the groupand the reintegration effect is reinforced in the Maori community due to the fact that the community is seen as partly responsible for the fact that the crime has taken place. As an example I was told that in Maori communities it is not unusual after a murder for the offender and his or her family to take care of the victim’s family for a long period of time. This often creates sustainably close ties between the two families.

The Maori system is ideally focused on obtaining optimum balance for the personal ecosystems of all of the participants in the Family Group Conference and to add new impulses and dimensions to that through improved cooperation. Conflicts and crimes are used as the basis to improve the lives of all stakeholders, parties, perpetrators and victims. The involvement of stakeholders in the solution of problems has a moderating effect on the impact of a conflict or offense on those that are directly involved. The problem comes in a wider, more realistic and de-escalating perspective. When multiple parties are involved, more, better and even more constructive solutions can be achieved.

Restorative Justice in the justice system:

Belgium and many other countries that have followed New Zealand’s example to integrate Restorative Justice in their criminal justice systems. If an offender opts for Restorative Justice criminal proceedings are suspended pending the results of the restorative conference. These results are then submitted to the court. Restorative Justice can be applied in many ways: in criminal law, in youth and family issues, e.g. domestic violence, visitation rights or family guardianship, neighbor rights and in numerous procedures on civil conflicts. During any phase of a procedure the court can refer the parties to an RJ coordinator, who will then speak to the parties and determine who must be involved with the RJ conference as stakeholders. Everyone is then invited and provided with instructions. The stakeholders are allowed to work out a plan between each other in a constructive manner, which is aimed at obtaining a solution. Very good collective solutions are often found in this manner, which cannot be achieved in settings in which only direct parties are involved. These solutions are good for all the ecosystems of all concerned.

Judge Jeri Beth Cohen is a judge with great charisma in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, Florida, in the United States[2]. She frequently has to deal with addiction, social evils and miserable situations. At a conference she described how she approaches cases: She listens to the stories of the parties. She tries to understand the underlying problems and she tries to determine who else may be involved to resolve an issue, neighbors, family, and friends, parents that live in the neighborhood or anyone in the community that may be needed. She then halts proceedings in order to continue it in presence of the relevant stakeholders. She says that the stakeholders always join in following an informal request. She takes care that everyone who can help to solve the problem is present in the hearing. Judge Cohen has a gift to mobilize people to help each other resolve issues. She knows how to prevent families from being torn apart or from being kicked out of their houses and she knows that problems with addiction need to be tackled. As I understand from her she never judges and she only uses her authority as a judge to facilitate solutions, whereby the people start to help each other and the social cohesion improves, rather than deteriorates. Her approach is very similar to Restorative Justice. I consider Judge Jeri Cohen to be an eminently sustainable judge. I have great respect for the manner in which she applies jurisdiction to obtain balance in individual and collective ecosystems.

The English city of Hull aims to become the first "Restorative City" in the world. Hull wants to become a city where the general cultural principle is that conflicts and offenses must be resolved by way of Restorative Justice.
New Zealand Professor Tony Ward conducts experiments in different countries with the Good Lives Model for the reintegration of offenders which is based on the vision that a healthy social ecosystem for a re-entering ex-offender forms the best protection against re-offending. He obtained surprisingly positive results with Family Group Conferencing after sexual violence.