One of the most significant challenges for restorative justice advocates is developing public understanding. Community support is important for any criminal justice programme, but especially for restorative justice programmes with their emphasis on community participation.

This tutorial will help you build a realistic plan for building community support for your restorative efforts. It proceeds in a step-by-step fashion to help you think through your goals, identify obstacles, enlist allies, and take specific action steps. It is based on Kay Pranis' paper "Building Community Support for Restorative Justice: Principles and Strategies".

Step 1: Set Your Goal

It is important to be as clear as possible about what your goals are. The best goals are stated so that it will be obvious whether or not you have achieved them. That means that you will want to think in terms of quantifying the goal and establishing a timeframe within which to achieve it.

For example, a general goal of "increasing community support for our local mediation program" is almost impossible to measure. It would be better to spend some time thinking about why increased community support is important and specific ways in which it could be expressed that would help the program. What you really need may be more volunteer mediators, or funds to pay operating costs. Expressing your goal as "Add 20 new volunteer mediators in the next year" or "Increase community financial support by $5,000 within 10 months" is more tangible. Even if your primary objective is to raise awareness in the community, you can express this in tangible terms: "Recruit 200 community residents in the next year as subscribers to a newsletter about our program."

Take a moment and prepare a short, specific goal statement.

Step 2: Face Your Challenges and Obstacles

What needs to be overcome in order to reach your goal? Some of the obstacles and challenges are external: they come from outside you and your program. A n example of an external challenge or obstacle is the public response to particularly horrible crimes. Others are internal: they are impediments that come from within you or your program. An example of an internal challenge or obstacle is that everyone involved with the program is too busy to do anything else.

Read through the following comments by Kay Pranis as you think about this:

  • Even where there is a high level of support for the restorative philosophy in the criminal justice system or community, broader public policy trends around the world are often in the opposite direction. Prison populations in many countries are growing rapidly and the cost of that expansion threatens the resources to work with victims and offenders in the community. Increasing dependence on incarceration may further paralyze the system making change much more difficult. Practitioners are frequently so overloaded that it is very difficult for them to think about questions of underlying values or philosophy.
  • There is also a great risk that the existing system, with its overwhelming orientation to offenders, will be unable to shift to a truly victim-centered approach to resolving crime. The habits of the system are strong. Even in jurisdictions committed to shifting to restorative justice, corrections practitioners frequently forget to involve victim representatives in their planning at the beginning.
  • It will take great vigilance to insure that victims' issues are given proper consideration. Victims groups vary in their reaction to restorative justice. Some see potential for a much better system for victims; some are watching and withholding judgment; some are adamantly opposed, believing that implementation will result in practices that are harmful to victims. They fear that the system will use victims to rehabilitate offenders. That the court will order 'restorative' activities without asking victims what they want. Even when asked, victims may not feel free to express their real feelings. These fears are grounded in previous experience with a system that regularly re-victimizes and disempowers victims and doesn't even know it.
  • A restorative approach might be unevenly applied, benefiting certain racial, ethnic or economic groups but not others. Such an outcome would be the opposite of restorative justice philosophy and values. Oversight by the state remains very important to minimize the likelihood of biased results.
  • The greatest risks involve implementation that fails to be true to the values of restorative justice. It is crucial that the values be clearly understood and frequently articulated to guard against the dangers of straying from them in practice.

Make a detailed and specific list of the obstacles that you face.

Step 3: Build On your Assets

Just as there are obstacles to overcome, so there are things going for you in your work. Some of these are external and some are internal. An example of an external asset might be public frustration with the criminal justice system's failure to adequately help victims or hold offenders accountable. Examples of an internal asset might be the success you have had, the people who have become part of the program, the volunteers who are willing to help.

Make a detailed and specific list of the assets you have going for you as you build community support for restorative justice.

Step 4: Decide On Basic Strategies

You have identified a specific goal, and assessed your strengths and obstacles. Before deciding on specific action steps, think about some basic strategies that will guide your action plan. For example, if your goal is to enlist 200 community sponsors, your strategy might be to focus on certain groups that are likely to support your work.

In adopting strategies, don't forget the basic values of restorative justice. Reflect on the following comments by Kay Pranis as you think about your basic strategies:

A restorative response to crime relies on the community to help reconcile and reintegrate victims and offenders. The community can also monitor and help enforce community standards of behavior. This means that a restorative response to crime must be a community-building response.

There is no single approach to building community support. But certain principles can increase the chances of success.

  • Restorative justice should not be mandated in a "top-down" authoritarian process. To gain community support and participation, the work of implementing the principles of restorative justice must be done at the local level and involve all the people who will be affected.
  • There is no single road map or blueprint for building a restorative system. No one has answers to all the questions raised by the principles of restorative justice. The process of creating specific programs, then, should involve all those who have an interest in the unanswered questions. Including them helps build community support.
  • While restorative programs should be developed locally, there are important roles for regional or national leadership. Those leaders should articulate the vision, distribute information, and provide support and technical assistance to local communities. Regional and national agencies can also carry out pilot programs to demonstrate application of the principles. Finally, those governments should monitor outcomes to insure fairness, equity and effectiveness of processes designed at the local level.
  • Special efforts to involve victims are important because they have historically been left out of the criminal justice process. Victims' groups may be skeptical that an initiative that has benefits to offenders can genuinely have victim interests at its center. An unwavering commitment to involve victims even when they are suspicious is critical to insure that the outcomes are genuinely restorative.
  • It is important that practitioners and stakeholders, including the community, understand the philosophy of restorative justice. That makes it more likely that changes will be substantive and not merely superficial. Program implementation without a clear understanding of the underlying values often leads to undesirable results.
  • The process of implementing restorative approaches must model the principles themselves. So victims must have a voice, the community must be involved. In fact, every person should be able to contribute to their community's vision of restorative justice.
  • Within the community are natural allies in fields outside criminal justice who can bring depth and credibility to advocacy and implementation of a restorative approach.
  • Start with people who are actively interested in trying restorative approaches. Seeds sown in fertile soil produce the most impressive results. The example of those results are more likely to convince skeptics than arguments.
  • Two-way communications between community stakeholders and regional or national leadership is very important.
  • All persons involved must be prepared to make mistakes. All persons must be prepared for others to make mistakes.

Write down the basic strategies you will adopt as you work toward achieving your goal.

Step 5: Set Action Steps

You have a specific goal and strategic guidelines. You have a sober understanding of your obstacles, but also of your resources. Now it is time to decide on specific action steps to help you accomplish your goal.

Action steps must be very specific. An example is "Present our program to the Civic Association meeting within the next two months and invite members to receive our newsletter". This example includes an activity (present our program), a date by when it will have been completed (within two months), and the desired outcome (sign up members for our newsletter).

Don't forget your goal when setting action steps. If the activities you consider will not help you achieve the goal, do not include them in your plan no matter how much you would enjoy doing them, or how useful they might be for other purposes. They won't help you accomplish your goal.

As you think about your action steps, read Kay Pranis' comments:

  • Education about restorative justice is essential. Building community support requires that people think about criminal justice issues from a restorative perspective. Ways of doing this include:
    • public speaking
    • distributing written materials
    • one-page informational pieces with more lengthy materials for those wanting more detail
    • radio interviews
    • TV shows
    • local news media
  • It is important to talk about the conceptual framework of restorative justice, but stories of real experiences bring those alive. Look for stories that relate to local personalities or local conditions. Stories that show how a satisfying restorative resolution involved the community and victims are especially effective. It is also useful to have stories that prove the failure or limitations of the current system. Having victims tell their own stories can be very powerful, showing both why the current system doesn't work and why a restorative process does.
  • Link people with common interests and complementary strengths. Involve community leaders in discussions about creating safe communities. Once community members become interested in a restorative approach, it is important to provide technical support for developing restorative practices within the community. Ways of offering technical support include:
  • providing responses to proposals
  • identifying expert resources
  • providing places for friendly and supportive contact
  • maintaining a resource library
  • being an enthusiastic 'cheerleader' to maintain enthusiasm and energy
  • Find your natural allies in the community. Listen to people and find out how restorative justice fits with their interests. Use language that 'connects' with your audiences. Some groups you might approach are those interested in violence prevention, underlying causes of crime, social justice, and building stronger neighborhoods. Educators may be interested in how restorative values help deal with school discipline problems. Law enforcement officials may be interested in increasing community involvement in crime prevention. Business people may be concerned about the high cost of the current system. Engage people in a discussion of their own worries, fears and concerns, and identify (where possible) how a restorative approach provides a potential solution to their problems.

What specific action steps have you decided on? If you are having trouble thinking of some, look at the case studies in Kay's paper for ideas.

Step 6: Prepare a Draft Plan

Compile your work from the first five steps. This is your draft plan. Look it over and ask yourself whether it is feasible, and how willing you are to implement the plan. Show it to others, particularly to those you would like to involve in the action steps, and get their suggestions and comments.

As you are revising the draft, consider the following from Kay Pranis' paper:

  • Avoid becoming identified with a particular political label. Find community allies on both ends of the political spectrum. Restorative justice is consistent with fiscal restraint, the call for a reduced role for government and an emphasis on personal accountability. Those are themes that many political conservatives respond to. On the other hand restorative justice's reduced emphasis on physical punishment and calls for community accountability are consistent with traditional liberal values. Seek out respected leaders from different points of view to be key supporters of restorative justice.
  • Listen to those who disagree. The entire community is concerned about community safety so everyone deserves to be respectfully heard. Listen carefully so that you can understand the objections. Develop an explanation responding to the objection to use when speaking to other groups. Acknowledge the need to have dialog and exploration on critical issues. Learn from the objections raised. Restorative justice is a model in formation and should be responsive to valid objections. Probe beneath surface objections to identify underlying issues. Sometimes these are more readily solved than initially may appear.
  • Put victims first. If the people raising objections are victims' groups or advocates, do all of the above repeatedly. Make a point of offering to visit them to hear their concerns. In order to be sure you understand them, ask them to listen as you restate their concerns in your own words. Ask a sympathetic victim supporter to help you understand the issues being raised. Seek victim ideas for any proposed change. Learn about victims' issues and the experience of victimization. Listen to victim stories. Use victim stories in your public speaking. In making written and spoken presentations, list items related to victims before those related to offenders.
  • Balance focus with flexibility. Be clear and consistent about the values and vision but remember that there are multiple ways to achieve the vision. Be prepared to modify your approach if it is not working and other more promising avenues appear. Success may depend more on how you respond to opportunity than on detailed long range action plans.
  • Monitor your own assumptions and stereotypes. Promoting a new paradigm requires breaking out of your own paradigms in many ways. Unexpected sources of support and opportunities may be missed if you don't become aware of your own assumptions about others and consciously put those aside.

When you have settled on a plan, send us a copy.