These findings – the strength of public support for the principles of restorative justice – are hugely encouraging for all of us who work for restorative justice. For many years it was considered a fringe idea or activity, at the margins of criminal justice. For so many of the public to respond positively to the essential idea of victims being able to tell offenders the impact of their crime, and offenders to take responsibility and make amends, signals a very radical shift, and one that leaves criminal justice agencies, and the politicians, struggling to catch up with the public.
Why has this shift in public attitudes happened? For me three things stand out. First I think there is a growing awareness that our criminal justice system, in seeking to be objective, impartial, and impersonal, has missed the needs of victims, and the very personal impact of crime. Restorative justice, alongside and as part of criminal justice, provides that counterbalance – a place and process within which the real harm caused to individuals can be acknowledged and their story and experience given centre stage.
Second, and alongside this dissatisfaction with aspects of criminal justice, Professor Gerry Johnstone has drawn attention to a shift generally towards ‘therapy culture’ – a culture in which emotion and subjective experience is given a weight and value which previously wasn’t there. In today’s culture therefore, there’s scope for individual experience to matter, within a justice framework.
And thirdly, I need to pay tribute here to the people and organisations who have worked tirelessly for restorative justice, across many continents, for many years, voices in the wilderness pointing out how the world could look, long before wider public opinion had ever heard of restorative justice; and the bravery and honesty of individuals who have been prepared to speak in public about their experience of restorative justice, people like Jo Nodding, Mary Foley, and Will Riley and Peter Woolf and many others whose stories and voices have perhaps played the biggest part in shifting public understanding of why and how restorative justice works.