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Review: Civilising criminal justice: An international restorative justice agenda for penal reform

November 12, 2013
Edited by David Cornwell, John Blad and Martin Wright – Foreword by John Braithwaite      2013   Paperback (565 pages)  and E-Book.

One stated goal (page 44, Introduction) is to offer a “vigorous and reasoned debate about the ways in which criminal justice systems in contemporary democracies might be made more ‘civilised’.”  The debate is moved forward by authors from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, South Africa, Italy, New Zealand, Finland, Hungary, France, Norway and the United Kingdom.  References are made, when needed, to seminal works and criminal justice R.J. projects from the United States. But, this is an ‘international’ book which makes no promise to offer more than nominal reference to North America. 

Each chapter concludes with a short list of helpful references, some in a language other than English. The North American reader should not expect articles on places of confinement, prisons, or what ‘penal reform’ may generally suggest to some. The focus is on the criminal justice system and how restorative justice might improve current practices on the streets, in courts, and throughout the criminal justice arena. The suggestions found within this large book are many.  These are from academics, judges, lawyers and practitioners who have current and first hand experiences in the culture and setting of which they write. For example, why not change some ‘criminal’ codes or procedures so as to keep domestic assault, or neighbourhood disputes out of the criminal courts?  Perhaps many of our habits (arrest, adjudicate, convict, punish) could be put on hold with a law enforcement and court structure that first attempts civil, not criminal, processing.    The restorative justice proponents from many nations suggest that police action and prosecution could best follow efforts to build relationships and seek solutions rather than consequences. 

The editors opine that the task is a large one. Old habits, old laws and ways of doing business are not easy to change. It will take time to overcome what one writer refers to as ‘institutional stupidity.’  As noted by Braithwaite in the foundational pages, “of the great institutions passed down to western civilization by the Enlightenment, none has been a greater failure than the criminal justice system.”  The various authors support the notion of ‘changing lenses’ or the new path (restorative justice) forward posited by Eastern Mennonite University (United States) professor and practitioner Howard Zehr several decades ago.  As the title implies, the focus is the development of criminal justice systems that are more civilised.  The term is briefly defined as a justice process that is ‘more fair, consistent, understandable’ and flexible.  Perhaps society (or nations) can be proud to offer a faster, less stigmatizing and more beneficial means of addressing unacceptable (criminal) behaviours.  As noted in chapter one, leniency and mercy do not mean that a society needs to condone an offense. The author of chapter two, himself a judge, asks for a system that does not rely on an adversarial process when an inquiry or win-win process will do. Various authors challenge any belief that firm prosecution (or zero tolerance) is an effective deterrence for other potential offenders. 

 Are the courts the best forums to respond to ‘incidents of wrongdoing’ or what we normally call crimes?  As the authors share, other nations have shown successful pilot projects with R.J. where victims are respected and empowered as essential participants in any process that seeks to hold an offender accountable and to change behaviour.  The offered snap shots of projects from diverse nations reflect a justice that holds offenders accountable and, on occasion, provides restitution to victims through a quicker and more satisfying process. Some of the proposed steps to ‘civilise’ fit best in juvenile justice and low level misdemeanour situations. In some settings, specifically New Zealand and Australia, police officials have been leaders in putting away the net of zero tolerance and looking for evidence based approaches to policing and justice that improve on ‘more of the same’.  Nowhere is there a proposal to simply replace courts or to eliminate incapacitation.  Readers of this volume can’t help but go forward with greater awareness of the roots of current criminal justice systems and an enhanced understanding of cultures most of us are unfamiliar with. 

Some months after this 2013 book went to print a leader, the #1 leader, in the United States criminal justice system went on record with a major speech directing the United States Courts (Federal) to change course and to amend some of the harsh practices of the past few decades.  Attorney General Eric Holder’s guidance or direction of August 12, 2013 is for prosecutors to immediately shift away from mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance and reliance on incapacitation and hurtful felony convictions.  He noted that the U.S. prisons are full, far too full. He challenged those in the states to work toward what this international book is all about, a more civil response to deviant and unacceptable behaviour. His speech would have served as a great summative chapter on the twenty-first century United States.  Perhaps a 2020 or second edition could provide an update on the status of civilising the United States criminal justice system.  But, for now, this is the book to reference regarding Dutch, Norwegian or Finnish paradigm shifts or efforts to develop more civilised justice systems.


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