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Developing ethical identities in young offenders through restorative justice practice in Australia

November 13, 2012

First, coercing young people into apologising encourages them to respond insincerely and fails to allow them to respond to the conference experience in true faith.The fear of a negative outcome, such as having to go to court or some other sanction,has driven these young people to recognise that what they themselves feel and believe does not matter; what matters is that the conference convenor and the victim are satisfied with the offender’s response. The perception is that not to offer an apology would lead to an unsatisfactory evaluation and possibly harsher consequences for the offender. 

Secondly, coercing an offender into apologising may reinforce the young offender’s identity as a deviant youth. The young offender is already stigmatised by being charged and admitting guilt, becoming acutely aware of their deviance in the process. Coercing an apology may reinforce the view that the young offender has of himself as deviant because it suggests to him that what he believes and feels is wrong. If the young offender doesn’t feel remorse, he or she may conclude that is because of some fault in themselves – they may believe that they should feel remorse, and if they do not, they may acknowledge that they are still deviant. If the goal of conferencing is restoration, then reinforcing deviance does not contribute to a successful outcome,regardless of whether the convenor or victim is ‘satisfied’. 

Finally, coercing young offenders into apologising prevents them from engaging in the ethical work required to develop their ethical identity. Their lack of remorse is a resistance to the conferencing process, which may not have worked the way it was intended. Such resistance is the first step of critical self-reflection and, if encouraged, would assist the young person in developing their ethical identity. Blaming the young person, rather than the process itself, for failing to achieve restoration – as coercing an apology implies – rejects the young offender’s resistance, effectively stymieing the process of critical self-reflection required in order for the young person to take responsibility and become ethically self-aware, while at the same time reinforcing the possibility of further future resistance leading to continued deviance.

We suggest that in a substantial number of cases, the conferencing process, as currently practiced, actually can work against restoration and repair. Systematic empirical research is needed to learn the degree to which this is the case. However, our  preliminary assessment of several case narratives from young offenders in youth justice conferences suggests that the process of restorative justice needs to afford young offenders the opportunity to resist perceived pressure to offer apologies. By doing so young offenders are able to engage in critical self-reflection, which is necessary for the development of their ethical identities. Furthermore, when apologies are offered by critically self-aware offenders, such apologies are more likely to be sincere and perceived as such by victims. It is this perception of sincere remorse is that is necessary for restoration and repair to be achieved.

Read the whole article.


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