What does successful RJ look like?

Published: Monday, November 16th, 2015


How do you define successful RJ? How do targets affect your provision and how do you measure success?

For a long time I have been concerned that the provision of RJ is measured by how many face-to-face conferences take place.  Budgets and funding bids are won on the promise of delivering a certain number of face-to-face conferences.

But does this criteria negatively impact on the provision of RJ and how do you define successful RJ anyway? These targets are potentially harmful for RJ – for example, would an organization go for some ‘quick wins’ rather than the more complex and lengthy cases?

I have been thinking about this whilst working on a very complex case where both parties want to meet.  If my primary concern was targets then I could bring them together.  In my professional opinion (and that of my supervisor and co-facilitator) a meeting would do more harm than good and as the primary purpose of RJ is to heal harm not inadvertently cause more it would be deeply unethical for me to bring them together.

Is using my professional judgement (built over many cases and after careful thought) therefore deemed to be a success or a failure?!

  • Is the face-to-face conference the measure of success?
  • Are the recidivism rates of offenders the measure of success?
  • Shouldn’t we be measured on the capacity to use professional standards?

I asked around amongst the key organisations for their opinions on what defines successful RJ.

Jon Collins, CEO of RJC says:

Firstly, I think that every service should be able to demonstrate that they are able to manage a reasonable caseload given their scope and capacity. The volume of restorative interventions conducted does matter. But quality of delivery matters too.

Tony Walker, Director of Training at Restorative Solutions, also comments on poor figures; saying that most counties are happy with 75 face to face conferences a year, which roughly equates to 1% of all victims in that county and that that isn’t good enough.  He says:

The perennial problems seem to be a combination of lack of referrals (always an issue)… and this stems from professionals who won’t, can’t and don’t refer for a plethora of reasons, none the least the continued belief that they know best.

Tony states which I wholeheartedly agree with:

Successful RJ… means ‘real’ access to the process for all victims.

I long for the day when restorative justice is seen as standard provision offered in all counties and is measured by case flow and outcomes – whatever that outcome is. I believe it is the flow of cases that should be measured – the number of victims and offenders requesting RJ and being able to access a skilled service and measuring that, whatever the outcome of the engagement itself, they were dealt with by a professional service provider.

Of course if a face-to-face meeting never comes to fruition then one has to question what is holding practitioners back from bringing parties together?  Are organisations too risk averse or is the organization as a whole lacking in confidence?  Are the logistics of RJ at odds with the working hours of its employees?  All of these issues are surmountable and as fledgling restorative hubs are emerging they can source the relevant training to give them the expertise they require – and keep an eye on whether the number of face-to-face- conferences is growing.

As Jon Collins says another measurement becomes the skill of your service – through, for example, the RSQM via the RJC, a quality mark of assurance of your skill as a provider.  Measurement is about the whole service you offer – the types of cases you can take on, the depth of experience of your practitioners and the management of the cases.

I am constantly reminded of the couple that I spoke to after their son was brain damaged in a driving accident. It was a year after the event and they spoke in depth about the impact on themselves and their family and each other.  It was the first time they had heard each other talk about the impact; up until that point they had simply been firefighting.  That was several years ago but it informed my desire to push for the needs for victims and for a different measure of success.

Had that work not resulted in a conference (it did) how could I have measured the benefits of that meeting and the long-term benefits for that family.  The mother has spoken publicly about how life changing her experience of restorative justice was at a couple of conferences and in Resolution and she is very clear that the first meeting was as impactful as the rest of the experience.

Fiona Turner from CALM agrees:

If there has been some information gained during the restorative process or a participant has been referred to a support service these can be a catalyst for change, sometimes people can be assisted by someone simply taking the time to listen to them.

I asked Ellie Acton at the Ministry of Justice how she defined successful restorative justice and she gave me a whole list of different scenarios, all of which could be qualified as successes, here is just one:

Input – victim wants to discuss about RJ

Output – victim has preparation and then decides what they actually need is some victim counselling – positive!

Ellie assured me that the measurement of restorative justice is something that the Ministry of Justice will be consulting on in 2016.

Becci Seaborne from Thames Valley Restorative Justice Service sent a really interesting reply that shows the value of understanding stats and how they can help resolve issues.  She says:

I think we live in a world where it’s important to be accountable and if we’re spending public money or money gained through fundraising we have to be able to describe in fairly clear terms what that money is paying for. But targets and statistics should only ever be part of the story, and should be supported by relevant and good quality narrative, including qualitative analysis if possible, and case studies where relevant, to give a full picture of what is going on and being achieved.

Numbers can tell us where we should be looking more closely at things to find out what is going on………At TVRJS we have set ourselves internal targets around numbers of conferences and if we don’t meet this target we’ll take a look at the cases and find out why – pick out themes, see if it’s linked to our practice or to something else. What we found on one occasion was that quite a few offender-initiated RJ cases didn’t go to conference despite the victims wishing to meet, because their partners did not want them to go ahead. This was an incredibly useful exercise as it enabled us to understand the wider dynamics affecting outcomes for victims and offenders. We are now developing literature focused on information for family members and supporters to help them understand what their loved one might gain from RJ so they might feel able to be more supportive of the process.

When I first trained all of the talk in the RJ world was about recidivism rates with a tiny mention of the needs of the victims.  Ellie remembers how at the bottom of the feedback form there would be one solitary question:

Was the victim satisfied: Yes/No

Thankfully that has changed and the benefits for victims of restorative justice have been recognized.

I heard Margaret Foxley talk at a conference a couple of years ago, she spoke eloquently on the impact of restorative justice for her as a victim of a burglary.

When our beautiful daughter was killed, six months later, I felt a greater need for some answers to my questions. At the time of the burglary, our daughter was more concerned with the reasons behind somebody breaking into a house and taking things for personal gain. She wanted to know what made a person do it and was more interested in helping and understanding rather than condemning.

She talked about how the offender in her case, who had recently re-offended and gone back to jail.  She was often asked, “How do you feel now your RJ has failed?”  To which she replied, it didn’t fail, I got what I needed.  Her testimony really impacted on me and I got in touch with her and asked her for her opinion now.

“When people, particularly from the media, question the success of my RJ in relation to the fact that the perpetrator reoffended, I have no hesitation in saying that this does not impact in the slightest. The RJ was about meeting my needs, answering my questions, allaying my fears and it did this, in a way that I would never have thought possible, from the moment I left the RJ conference in the prison.”

My hope is that more research will be done on the long-term health benefits and reduction of PTSD as a result of RJ engagement for victims.

Steve Jones from Remedi says:

Surely the person best placed to define something as having ‘worked’ is the beneficiary of whatever that thing is.  The current state of play where the number of conferences is the measure of success is in my opinion dangerous and the greatest threat to RJ. Why? Firstly – because practitioners are cutting corners and side stepping risk assessments simply to chase an arbitrary target and secondly because volume does not necessarily equal quality, Macdonalds sell a lot of burgers but I wouldn’t necessarily define it as haute cuisine. That has to be wrong.

My personal plea is, please can we start measuring RJ primarily qualitatively and secondarily quantitively. And where we are measuring RJ quantitatively instead of numbers of conferences can we measure the number of people asking for RJ and the quality of the service they receive and the number of outcomes, whatever they happen to be.

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