The Transformational Power of Youth RJ – 30 speakers share

Historically, young offenders have been processed and treated in a comparable manner to adult offenders. However, with the rise of the RJ philosophy and methodology, young people were some of the first to be trailed in this new and innovative paradigm. Over thirty years later, RJ has increasingly built a good name and continues to play a powerful role in youth justice. Around the world, due to RJ approaches and practices, many young people have been diverted and discouraged from pursuing careers of crime.

“The concept of restorative justice is always applicable, that is we ask: What are the harms that have happened? What are the needs that have resulted? Whose obligations are they? How do we engage people in the process? To what extent can we engage people in the process? Those questions are always valid.”

Professor Howard Zehr

For many young offenders, crime does not occur in a vacuum, separate from the rest of life, but rather is aggravated by other circumstances or problems that exist. For example, there are parents, teachers, peers, and a whole range of other social, or relational, features and elements involved.

In a retributive system, however, many young offenders are processed and sentenced without physical, emotional, and spiritual needs being sufficiently appraised and addressed. Once a victim gets to prison, or some other sentencing result, these needs are often only exacerbated and can detrimentally affect their health and prospect of healing.

Research suggests that RJ practices with youth offenders have led to many promising outcomes, through programs like conferencing, victim-offender mediation, and circle sentencing. In Australia, where indigenous youth over-representation is a considerable concern, these diversionary programs for young people can lead to life-changing beneficial impacts for the offenders and their families. Especially in youth RJ, it is considered important to involve the peers and role models that surround both the offender and victim. This vividly reminds all involved that crime is not isolated, but involves relationships and the community that surrounds these people. And it is often only the RJ approach that helpfully acknowledges this reality.

RJ is based on the recognition that each party involved in the offense – offender, victim, and community – has needs and possibly trauma, and healing must take place.

As many key professionals have suggested, it must be recognised that RJ and the traditional criminal justice system do not need to be mutually exclusive. Each brings a different perspective and, with those different perspectives, different goals and results. When we consider the reality of youth crime, it can be appreciated that RJ can have great results for youth offenders, diverting them from a cyclic and recurring recidivism reality.

During RJ World 2020, we will hear from presenters on the topic of youth RJ. Youth present unique needs and obligations according to a RJ paradigm, which must be genuinely recognised and met with appropraite and sensitive practice.

Victim empowerment: Emerging ideas from 4 speakers

Crime victims should be central to the restorative process. There are over 10 speakers at RJ World who speak on this issue from various perspectives –included among them are survivors of violent crime who overcame their experiences to become academics and practitioners. Here are four to start with.

Malini Laxminarayan

Malini Laxminarayan has in the past worked on projects relating to empowerment of victims of sexual violence, victims’ rights, and access to restorative justice. Her presentation at the upcoming RJ World 2020 Conference will cover new research into experiences of victims of anti-LGBT hate crime in restorative justice. These are preliminary findings from the Lets Go By Talking project which addresses an under researched victim group in restorative justice. This type of victim may require a unique approach as victims suffer not just a personal attack but an attack on their identity. This presentation may benefit those wishing to enhance their understanding of how to engage this unique kind of victim in restorative conflict resolution.

Margot Van Sluytman

Margot Van Sluytman teaches global citizenship at Centennial College, Toronto and is an award-winning justice activist and writer. In her presentation she will explain an emergent model of restorative justice called Sawbonna, in terms of both criminal justice and social justice. Sawbonna challenges common definitions of restorative justice and further empowers victims as informers of policy and active storytellers beyond a bystander role in justice processes. Therefore, Sawbonna may be said to engage in the required discourses to further ideas of victim empowerment and indeed, RJ advocates will be curious to learn more about this approach which may broaden victim definitions in restorative justice.

Claudia Christen-Schneider

Claudia Christen-Schneider, President of the Swiss RJ Forum, will address the topic of trauma in restorative justice in her presentation. In order for RJ to facilitate healing for victims through empowerment and connection building, it is necessary to recognise where victims are also trauma survivors and, in this case, healing necessitates a trauma-informed approach. Research has shown that RJ practitioners may lack this understanding of trauma and are therefore limited in their capacity to facilitate healing and so this presentation will explain trauma-informed restorative practices for the more effective empowerment of victims.

Dr Zulfiya Tursunova

Dr Zulfiya Tursunova is Assistant Professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at Guilford College, North Carolina. Dr. Tursunova’s presentation will examine the case study of women in rural Uzbekistan who have used restorative circles for their own empowerment in tackling social and economic issues, issues of gender, reorganisation of resources, conflict resolution, and community building. This case study may be interesting in the context of how restorative processes can play a role in social change. It is also interesting that restorative practices have been employed in this context since 1991 and so the role and effect of restorative practices can be seen over a significant period of time. Furthermore, this presentation will be interesting to those considering the breadth of contexts wherein restorative practices prove impactful.

What is the role of the crime victim in restorative justice?

Aertsen et al (2011) suggested that the definition of victim empowerment be broadened in restorative justice from simply an idea of developing self-confidence and understanding of the offence to a sense of empowerment that develops the victim’s capacity to promote social change.1 Indeed, this discussion of victim emancipation which allows the victim a sense of positive impact and the opportunity to engage with crime-relevant social issues is increasingly prevalent. Attendees of the upcoming 2020 RJ World Conference may be interested in hearing emerging ideas around victim empowerment in restorative justice and how victim participation can give a sense of power to affect positive change. In this vein, the following presentations may be of particular interest.

Victim empowerment may be understood as an effort to give victims a greater sense of control and more of an active role in criminal justice processes. Arguably, criminal justice has traditionally been offender-focused, to the detriment of the victim who may feel undervalued and unimportant through the process. Different efforts have been made to ‘empower’ the victim through giving them an opportunity to speak on the impact of the crime on them personally or the opportunity to express what they want from the process. Such efforts – including the likes of victim impact statements – aim to leave victims with a greater sense of satisfaction or closure coming from the criminal justice process. Restorative justice has been praised for improving the balance in criminal justice between the focus on the victim and on the offender. By utilising a process which aims to recognise the needs of both victim and offender, RJ has successfully garnered more satisfactory feedback from victims than those reporting on traditional processes.

1 Prof. Ivo Aertsen of the Leuven Institute of Criminology will also be presenting at the RJ World 2020 Conference on the topic of the history of RJ and the potential of RJ in serious crime, reflecting on the recent history of RJ and RJ developing away from the criminal law

About the author: Ruairí Weiner has recently completed a BA in Anthropology and Criminology from Maynooth University. He is currently a Research Assistant at Maynooth University Department of Law and is pursuing an MSc in Applied Social Research at Trinity College Dublin. He is interested in organisational culture in criminal justice settings and how restorative practices can be applied to a variety of settings for community building and other purposes.