RJ Practices

Restorative practices are meant to put into practice the theory and philosophy of Restorative Justice. The most common practices are:

Victim-Offender Mediation (VOM):

VOM is one of the oldest and most broadly used forms of restorative practices throughout the world. It is strongly based on core RJ values, as discussed under “Values”. Qualified mediators facilitate a voluntary meeting between victim and offender. Both can share their experience, express their feelings and seek their own way to find solutions, repair the harm done and work towards achieving justice. The process emphasizes the active participation of both stakeholders.

The first modern rendition happened through a rather unconventional approach in Elmira, Canada, in 1974. Mark Yantzi, a probation officer and volunteer with the Kitchener Mennonite Central Committee, created, together with Dave Worth, the first implementation of VOM. Their aim was for perpetrators to personally face their victims, take responsibility for their actions, and seek ways to repair the harm done. After this first attempt, they continued to promote and try-out mediations within criminal justice. Out of this grew the so called Victim/Offender Reconciliation Project, in 1975. Their approach started to spread throughout Canada, the US, and other countries around the world (Kelly, 2006; Peachey, 2003).

Conferencing:

Family Group Conferences (FGC) were introduced in New Zealand in 1989 and since then have been used and adapted in many places around the world, for a variety of different contexts and needs. The background leading up to their use in New Zealand was a crisis in the country’s juvenile justice system, which had become overburdened and proved to be ineffective. As the government started to listen to various communities in the 1980’s, FGCs started to emerge as a central tool, incorporating the Maori’s recommendations of including the extended family and community, as a source to address the issues at hand.

FGCs are intended to provide a personal encounter between offenders, victims, their families, and supporters, including any other representatives, who need to be involved. The aim is to support offenders as they take responsibility and change their behaviour; empower their families to take an active role; and address the needs of victims. It should be a culturally sensitive process, empowering families in their respective roles, and aiming at achieving goals, such as: accountability, involving the victims, strengthening the offender’s family, and consensus decision-making, besides others. To achieve these goals, specific guiding principles, sensitive to the stakeholders’ situations and needs, are to be practiced (MacRae & Zehr, 2004).

Circles:

Circle processes have re-emerged from traditions practiced by many ancient people around the world. Many different kinds of Circles are in use, including: Youth Development Circles, Criminal Justice / Sentencing Circles, Circles of Support and Accountability, Healing Circles, or Peacemaking Circles. Circles are dialogue or ‘story-telling processes’, which seek to create a safe space to discuss difficult, painful issues, and aim at enhancing mutual understanding in order to improve relationships and find mutually satisfactory solutions or outcomes (Pranis, 2005). Circles cannot only be used reactively but serve proactive purposes too, promoting healthy and restorative relationships. They are often used in prisons for working with groups of inmates and sometimes involve participants from the community. They have proved to be a valuable tool to address many issues such as conflicts, harm, trauma, and relationship building. Circles are also being used successfully in schools, communities, corporations, different kinds of organizations and work places to strengthen relationships, work on teambuilding, share visions and create plans, solve conflicts, build stronger communities and improve mutual understanding.

Restorative Dialogues:

Restorative Dialogues between victims, offenders and community members may have profound effects on the participants. In some programs direct stakeholders are involved in other programs unrelated victims and offenders meet to discuss the effect crime has on individuals and the community, the harm resulting from it, what it means to accept responsibility and how to make things right. Such facilitated dialogues may help starting a healing process in victims and help offenders confront the harm their actions have had on others. It can even help offenders start healing from own traumas they may have suffered in the past, especially during their childhood. Such traumas can trigger anger, which, when not adequately dealt with, can result in violence (Gilligan, 2003). Studies on programs like the Sycamore Tree Project®[1] have shown that offenders’ attitudes change significantly during these programs and that they are less likely to reoffend upon release.
Restorative practices can be more or less restorative, depending on the aspects they involve. Martin Wright speaks of ‘unilateral’, ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ restorative justice. Unilateral approaches serve either the victim or the offender but do not connect them. In authoritarian approaches, courts and related agencies may impose final decisions. In democratic approaches, however, not only victims and offenders are involved in deep dialogue, which seeks to address the harms occurred and the necessary reparation, but community members also play a role within the process (Wright, 2001).

Van Ness and Schiff (2001) suggest that four components should be included in restorative practices: 1) an ‘encounter’, usually face-to-face, that provides a safe space where all stakeholders can share their story, their feelings and experiences in order to gain a mutual understanding and, if needed, facilitate the consensus-finding 2) a reparation that reflects the seriousness of the harm and crime or seems appropriate to victim and offender 3) reintegration into the community for victim and offender, promoting restored relationships that are founded upon mutual respect, commitment and shared values 4) voluntariness of the process for both victims and offenders (Van Ness & Schiff, 2001).

According to Ted Wachtel (2013), it is important not only to see these practices as reactive, responding to crime and wrongdoing after its occurrence, but also as proactive, useful to build and strengthen healthy, restorative relationships and communities, which are able to prevent conflict.

[1] Several studies have been conducted, in Europe by the Sheffield Hallam University in 2009 and the University of Hull in 2014 – 2016, at this time under the name of “Building Bridges”.