One of the most difficult problems facing restorative justice advocates is how to convince the public that this approach is better than harsh, retributive-sounding responses. I have not conducted a scientific study by any means, but I have made a point lately of reading comments posted in response to news articles about the use of restorative features in the Youth Justice System (see, for example, responses to this story).

The comments seem to fall into three categories: 1) one group is simply supportive of the new approach, 2) another likes it in theory but believes it will not work, and 3) the third argues that only sanctions that engender fear will reduce youth offending. One unedited and straightforward example of the latter is the following: “Here's an idea. How about whenever some little scrote breaks the law they get shot. Likewise, when their benefit scaming parents also break any law - they too get shot. I guarantee that in about 10 years time if these measures were taken we would be living in a much more civilised society.”

Two things strike me as I look at the comments. No one seriously argues that what restorative measures are replacing was better. All agree that change is needed. Second, proposals for harsh sanctions appear to be motivated less by the desire for retribution than by a faith in the deterrent power of severe sanctions.

There is abundant evidence that restorative approaches do produce lower repeat offending, higher victim satisfaction and increased “healing” for both victims and offenders than does the status quo. But this seems to be counter-intuitive to many people.

The Youth Justice Board is working hard to inform and involve the public so that its attitudes change over time. There is an additional approach that might be worth trying as well.

Jeff Jarvis, in his book What Would Google Do?, suggests that companies need to view their worst customer as their best friend. The “worst customer” is one who dislikes the company intensely and publicly as demonstrated by their comments in blogs or other social networking media. Jarvis suggests that the best approach to people like that is to contact them and ask for their help in making things better. If something wasn’t done right, admit it and explain the steps being taken to keep it from happening again. Ask if they have other suggestions. And then – this is very important – work to change the culture of the company so that its people take the problem and solutions very seriously.

A way to begin might be for the Youth Justice Board to organize a group of people who will follow all comments, blogs, tweets and other messaging to identify discussions about the use of restorative justice. They can use Technorati, Google Reader, and other search engines to locate those messages. These people could be volunteers but it would be best if  they reported to the Board. They should be instructed how to reply (respectfully, briefly and factually) when either support or opposition is voiced, and how to identify “worst customers”. Those customers should receive tailored, sincere responses from Board members that demonstrate that they have been heard and their ideas taken seriously.

The Making Good blog invites people to come to the Board to offer opinions. Most “worst customers” will be unaware of or will simply decline that invitation. To turn them into best friends it will be necessary to go to where they are in order to begin a dialogue.

If we are ever to see anything like RJ City in all its glory, we need to learn how to inform and enlist the general public. The Board is off to a very good start and its next challenge is to penetrate to those worst customers in order to make them best friends.