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Making Good in England: Engaging with the public for restorative justice reform

November 30, 2009

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.

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