What is the purpose of Justice? This simple yet polarising question has underpinned raging debates for centuries. To some, it is a totemic image as a punitive system. Since the nineteenth century though, alternative theories have emerged, challenging the central focus on retribution, and instead, seeking to increase the emphasis on the victim. In short, to strike a greater balance between a broken law against the state, and the effect of the crime against the victim. This sentiment is eloquently expressed by noted criminologist Howard Zehr:
Crime is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. Justice involves the victim, the offender and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation and reassurance.
In this post, passionate scholar Penelope Harley shares her insights in the field of Restorative Justice, and how she found its principles congruent with her own personal experiences and outlook.
Could you describe your passion and area of interest?
The journey of my professional life has touched a diverse array of educational experiences: from early years to graduate students. Throughout my career have run several strong currents: a burning desire to keep learning myself; a constant embrace of unfamiliar communities and international horizons paired with a guiding belief in the power of partnership; a deep commitment to the development of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But, most of all, my life has been guided by my passion for the transformative power of the personal.
What drew you to the world of Restorative Justice, to begin with?
That passion began to flourish when I joined the staff of a large Church of England comprehensive school. The satisfaction of teaching, caring for and inspiring energetic, characterful and opinionated young women has never left me. Both as a dynamic and committed classroom teacher and as a deeply involved head of year, I witnessed that transformative power in action. I left London to attend law school in the United States, drawn to a centre of excellence in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution by long held interest in issues of justice, my experience living in the Middle East, a burgeoning interest in mediation and my itch for more study and a wider international scope. Within the field of dispute resolution, I was instantly drawn to the principles and practices associated with Restorative Justice given that at its core the field is driven by the same passion that has always motivated my life.
How would you describe Restorative Justice?
Restorative Justice has been defined by the Crown Prosecution Service as, “a process through which parties with a stake in a specific offence collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future.” It grew from the idea that crime could be viewed in a fundamentally different way, with the focus put on the repair of harms caused by wrongdoing rather than on the rules that have been broken. It can be used at various points in a justice process and take many forms: from direct contact between victims and offenders to a package of restitution or reparation agreed by those involved. It has deep roots in indigenous communities and aims to transform to the lives of victims, offenders, their families and communities. Over time Restorative Justice has become part of a wider field called Restorative Practice which uses profoundly inclusive practices to prevent conflict, build relationships and repair harm across wide areas of society such as in workplaces and schools. A range of stakeholders can be involved: from the intense intimacy of one on one Victim Offender Mediation to slightly larger Family Group Conferences and then much larger community and, indeed, national efforts such as the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But at their core, all restorative practices involve a change in the head and the heart of the participants and have as their bedrock the belief in the transformative power of the personal to repair harm and restore or build relationships.
How has Restorative Justice touched your life?
I first watched a film on Restorative Justice in one of my criminal law classes in Minnesota, and was hooked. By complete luck, Minnesota was on the vanguard of Restorative Justice in America and its Department of Corrections had appointed the first Restorative Justice Planner in the country. I was very blessed to train in the peacemaking Circle process with First Nations leaders from the Yukon in Canada. I went on to train in Victim Offender Mediation, including for crimes of severe violence, but it was the Circle process that met my passion. For several years I was part of a sentencing Circle which operated to keep young African-American men out of prison and on a good life path. Also weekly I would drive out of the Twin Cities to join a Lakota elder sitting in Circle with young felons in a juvenile correctional facility. I also had a strong interest in Restorative Measures in Schools and spent time in middle and high schools in both Minnesota and Texas. I took the restorative principles and practices I had absorbed into my own classroom and throughout my years teaching university students in America I always used the Circle process. On more than one occasion, students commented that mine was the first class they had felt empowered enough to speak in.
How has your Restorative Journey continued?
I still breathe the principles and practices of Restorative Justice. When establishing a women’s book club at my local parish church I instinctively reached for the Circle format to ensure that gentler characters and quieter voices would be heard. In all instances that offer the chance for intimate sharing, I always model an answer: both to promote rich sharing but also to suggest boundaries. I have learned to listen deeply over the years and I draw on this skill for my work in schools. But the passion that drew me to Restorative Justice and that provides its bedrock spills over into every facet of my life. Greeting everyone I meet with warmth and gratitude is a guiding force in my days. I witnessed the power of this passion when my son and I walked the full Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela last summer. We were sustained (spiritually but also physically) over eight hundred kilometres by the instinctive salutation of strangers, “Buen Camino.” It literally means ‘good road’ but comes to mean ‘good path’ or ‘good way’. It is related to the pilgrimage intent of becoming your best self. It is that best self which is called forth in any restorative practice and with every step on a restorative journey. In this country it is the Restorative Justice Council’s vision to make high quality restorative practices available to all. The organisation’s website offers a comprehensive overview of its work and vision.