The role of Restorative Justice in marginalised communities

Published: Friday, August 25th, 2023

In this blog, Nishma, our Restorative Justice Development Officer, shares more about her work on Project Articulate and the value of Restorative Justice for marginalised communities.


I started my role as Restorative Justice Development Officer at Why me? in June 2023. I have been leading Project Articulate which aims to widen access to Restorative Justice (RJ) for people who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL). In particular, it seeks to understand the barriers to accessing RJ for certain communities and what we can do to overcome these.

Given the systemic racism faced by racialised groups such as Black and migrant communities, and throughout the criminal justice system there is an understandable hesitation when it comes to relying on the criminal legal system for justice when harm happens. So, what does this have to do with Restorative Justice?

Two of the challenges I see to this are, firstly, that Restorative Justice services in the UK are often provided by the police or groups commissioned by the police and, secondly, that there are few RJ practitioners from racialised communities themselves. I think this creates massive barriers to racialised people accessing restorative services in a way that is grounded in trust and cultural understanding. 

Making the offer from a place of trust

One of Why me?’s findings from working with young adults from Black, Asian and other ethnic backgrounds was the lack of trust in services, particularly regarding the police. One participant shared the harshness of police concerning their race, stating: “The reason why the police are so harsh is because it’s a punitive justice system to begin with, like the court says you need to punish first rather than healing.” In addition to this, it was also shared that perceptions of threat played a large role in how they were treated by the police – whether that was race, gender or size. 

Such experiences from a young age can create a deep lack of trust. If, then, it is those you distrust the most that make the offer of Restorative Justice to you, or are leading the process, it is understandable that you may choose not to explore the option further. 

In this work, it is vital that we pay attention to the foundations required for Restorative Justice to truly work well for all parties. One such foundation is trust – the belief that those offering this option to you are truly hoping for a better outcome that moves away from punitive measures. In the long term, there needs to be an institutional shift in the way the police engage with racialised communities but a more immediate change may be to shift and streamline the ways in which people access information about and opportunities to engage in Restorative Justice. Vitally, can this information be provided by trusted individuals in a way that fosters better understanding and engagement with Restorative Justice?

The importance of cultural mediation in Restorative Justice

A key part of Restorative Justice is dialogue, in order to understand one another. An important role of the facilitators is to build relationships and rapport. As a facilitator, the lack of understanding around different cultures and languages can therefore be a huge barrier to holding a successful restorative space. Language and culture play a huge role in our values, assumptions and ways of understanding. Inevitably, this is likely to affect racialised individuals who choose to participate in Restorative Justice.

As shared by experts on this project, no two people will interpret the same statement in exactly the same way. Or, as restorative circle pioneer Dominic Barter put it, “message sent does not equal message received”. The words that are spoken, even when they appear ‘neutral’, are often surrounded by layers of social and cultural complexity. Even words such as ‘conflict’ or ‘relationship’ or ‘trust’ come with different underlying meanings in different cultural contexts.

Project Articulate is looking to address this barrier by exploring what RJ practitioners should be doing to be more culturally aware. I would argue that it is important to go one step further to understand how we might equip people from a wider range of communities to become RJ facilitators within their own contexts and cultures. This is even more powerful when we think about the global indigenous roots of Restorative Justice itself.

Project Articulate has been an eye-opening experience in understanding the barriers that people who experience cultural and linguistic marginalisation may face in finding out about, accessing and participating in RJ. Watch this space for our Good Practice Guide which looks at how we might tackle these challenges as a sector – sign up to our launch event to be the first to hear our guidance. 

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