The Power of Dialogue: Victories and Struggles in pursuit of Restorative Justice in the UK

Published: Tue, November 29th, 2016


Our Restorative Justice (RJ) Coordinator, Louise Raven-Tiémélé writes about the ongoing challenges in developing collaborative inter-agency partnerships. Louise brings a wealth of knowledge and encourages practitioners – both from the RJ community and the CJS – about the importance of continued dialogue in supporting  individuals through the RJ process.

If in reading this blog you would like to make a referral or find out more about Why me? RJ Service, please call 020 3096 7708 or email ask@why-me.org

“Being able to communicate with other criminal justice professionals is vitally important to enabling RJ to move beyond the realm of mere wish, desire or concept to being a tangible possibility”.

Overview in the UK

Awareness of Restorative Justice and its value is gradually growing, albeit at a slow pace. The RJC and Ipsos MORI poll in 2015 revealed that 70% of victims of crime don’t know about Restorative Justice. Clearly more work still needs to be done to raise awareness and support for RJ. Furthermore, the inconsistency of RJ service provision across the country means that even those victims (the 30%) who are aware of RJ are not always able to access it. The reasons for this are manifold, often pertaining to allocation of funding and capability and capacity of the RJ service provider.

The RJ process and the many barriers to conversation

Having spoken to the initiating party and determined that we are able to help them try to achieve a successful RJ outcome, the next step for exploring RJ-potential is dialogue with criminal justice professionals in connection with the case – Police, Probation, Victim liaison officers and Prison staff.

It is at this point that we often encounter the first hurdle. Alongside the long-standing frustrations around information sharing, the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) agenda as well as police staffing cuts has presented a myriad of far-reaching challenges (particularly around resourcing and stability) affecting staff, the public, and of course victims and offenders. The successful implementation of RJ is reliant on the cooperation (or at the moment, on the goodwill) of (often overworked) professionals working in probation, prisons and the police force and unfortunately, the process is being hampered by the turmoil.

The reluctance of criminal justice professionals to speak to us, even to discuss the request for RJ can be a significant issue. Once we have successfully reached the professionals, caution around what they are willing to share about their client means that we are reliant upon their understanding of the RJ process, as well as the needs of the client. It can sometimes be an easier option for professionals to close down the discussion when it is unfamiliar territory and as well as trust-building, this is one of our challenges to help people feel safe enough to continue the dialogue.

Of course systemic delays, such as those connected with the ‘transfer process’ for offenders moving from one probation area to another or the reallocation of the case to a new Offender Manager (OM) or Offender Supervisor (OS), has proved to be a significant factor in getting the RJ process started. One case we managed involving a transferred offender was put on hold for several weeks because the former OM said they were unable to do anything whilst the transfer was in process and until the new OM had been allocated.

Example 1: A victim of a brutal robbery and assault was put in touch with Why me?, after their request for RJ was finally heeded by a Police officer and passed on to us. The victim knew about and had been requesting RJ for several months. Only through perseverance, were they able to access the chance to talk with a RJ service provider, which happened to by Why me? The facilitators quickly set to work, meeting with the victim to discuss their needs and expectations and contacted the relevant professionals, including Prison and Probation staff. Unfortunately, the months of delay the victim experienced before being heard, coupled with issues of under staffing in prison, meant that by the time the facilitators were able to reach the offender, the individual was in the process of being deported. Despite this turn of events, which was incredibly frustrating for the victim, having felt let down by the Court process and then fighting to get their request for RJ heard, we were able to help meet some of their needs. We arranged and supported the victim to share their story and hear responses from a group of 20 prisoners who were completing the Sycamore Tree Course – a victim empathy course utilising restorative principles. After the visit, the victim said “It was truly a good experience for me to be involved and I am sure it has helped heal my wounds a lot quicker.”

Of fundamental concern affecting the pursuit of RJ is that criminal justice professionals are sometimes inadvertently disempowering victims by preventing even the exploration of a restorative process. The reasons for this may be lack of understanding and trust in the RJ process and behind that, the fear that something could go wrong and that the professionals themselves would be held to account.
This avoidance or ‘closing down’ can manifest in not responding to emails or not returning phone calls. Eventually, tenacity and persistence usually pays off, but it takes great effort! Sometimes professionals avoid a dialogue because of the type of offence – for example, domestic violence (Why me? considers cases of domestic violence when the RJ request is initiated by the victim).

An experience of working with a request for RJ from a victim of a serious domestic violence assault illustrates the importance of RJ service providers being able to speak to the professionals involved in the case.

Example 2: The victim contacted Why me? having been unable to access local RJ services and apparently with little understanding as to why their request would not be pursued. The two facilitators took the time to meet with the victim, which is something we are committed to doing, to listen to them and explore their needs. Again, dogged determination enabled us to have the necessary dialogues with those professionals involved in the case –OS, OM and VLO. We worked with them to explore the potential to help repair some of the harm. The offender declined to engage and once the victim actually had this response explained to them, they stated that at least now they could start to move forwards in their life and rebuild, following the harm caused. It was clear that this was a significant benefit to them rather than being unsure as to whether the offender would engage and be able to provide some answers. I hope we helped the victim to feel empowered again.

Dialogue should not be feared. Collaboration is key

A transparent and collaborative approach which helps us to ensure a high quality and safe service for victims and offenders, is a positive way forwards. It is clear that RJ service providers and criminal justice professionals need to talk and work together to ensure the wellbeing of all involved in a RJ process and for that reason, dialogue should not be feared.

At the centre of the work we do should be the wellbeing and needs of the victims and offenders we work with and enabling victims a voice to tell their story – to the facilitators and if possible, to those that caused them harm. The question we should be mindful of is how the victim will feel if their initial request is shut down with little or no explanation. This could cause frustration and even, further harm.

Another example of constructive inter-agency liaison is our work with staff and volunteers in prisons across England and Wales. Building positive working relationships with prison staff and volunteers based on trust has been crucial to the collaborative work we do to make RJ more accessible – to both harmed and harmer. As well as meeting and presenting to Chaplains, course volunteers, Prison Governors and staff to transmit the value of RJ and the opportunity to continue working with prisoners who have a foundation of victim empathy work, we also worked to build further understanding and support within the prison for the work we do, as well as the need for information sharing. Agreements were drawn up and put in place to help remove barriers which can cause delays to the RJ process. Peter Woolf shared his powerful story of transformation and hope, which helped to emphasise the potential of RJ for offenders as well as victims of crime. The Governor’s support and the passion of the course volunteers have been a driving force for the success of our collaborative work in prisons.

Dialogue that leads to action

I have found that passion for the RJ process (fundamentally, its healing potential for participants), alongside the good will and willingness of staff and volunteers to work with us, is what makes everything possible. A successful outcome for victims and offenders may be a face-to-face RJ meeting, an indirect process of communication, or it may be the victim feeling heard and empowered through the way their request for RJ was handled, which was rooted in dialogue.

The goal of RJ is to help repair the harm that has been caused, by enabling and facilitating connection with those who have been affected, through a safely managed dialogue or process. The professionals who are best placed to support this process can sometimes be the ones who end up hindering it. Protection and safety are of course, always paramount, but if we aren’t able to talk about what has happened, we are in danger of stifling the RJ process, disempowering victims and frustrating those commissioned to provide the services. So let’s keep talking to each other and boldly having those (sometimes difficult) conversations, to preserve the participants and the process. Dialogue is such a significant part of what Restorative Justice is all about, after all.

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