Restorative Justice and Violence Against Women

May 20, 2010

The restorative justice movement grew out of concerns about the failure of the mainstream criminal justice system to prevent crime, to make offenders accountable to victims, to rehabilitate offenders, or to reintegrate offenders into the community after they had served custodial sentences, particularly in the context of youth offending. It also articulated well with indigenous community-based approaches to offending and aspirations towards self-determination in response to criminal justice systems that were engaged in the aggressive criminalisation and incarceration of indigenous peoples.

Victim-offender mediation schemes were introduced in the US and Canada in the 1970s, while the 1990s saw the introduction of family-group conferencing in New Zealand, initially to deal with young Maori offenders but ultimately extending to all youth crimes. Youth justice conferencing was subsequently extended to Australia and North America. The Navajo nation in the US established its Peacemaker Court in the 1980s, and sentencing circles were established within Canadian First Nations communities in the 1990s.

The UK has been a relative latecomer to, and less enthusiastic adopter of, restorative justice. It is used here primarily in the youth justice system, in the context of police cautioning and after guilty pleas. The Home Office website states the aim of offering restorative justice to 75 per cent of the victims of youth crime. In the adult context, several pilot schemes were run in the early 2000s, but in an era of devolved budgets, restorative justice initiatives are the responsibility of local police forces and community justice boards and, without a central government policy push or specific resourcing, there has been little take-up.

Despite its popularity in other parts of the world, restorative justice is not without its critics, most notably feminist scholars and advocates who argue that it is inappropriate for cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. In response to a 2003 government consultation, for example, Women's Aid called for a legislative ban on the use of any form of restorative justice in domestic violence cases. The reasons for this include concerns about the power imbalance between the parties (echoing concerns in relation to mediation in relationships marked by domestic violence), and concerns that the "community" that is supposed to support the survivor and hold the perpetrator to account too often engages in victim-blaming and supports excuses for violence against women.

The aim of Restorative Justice and Violence Against Women is to canvass feminist concerns about the use of restorative justice in relation to sexual assault and domestic violence, to explore alternative justice practices inspired by feminist and anti-racist movements, and to advance dialogue between the various protagonists. The contributors are distinguished scholars and activists from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. The book is divided into two parts, preceded by a useful editorial introduction.

The six chapters in the first part rehearse feminist critiques of restorative justice; these are familiar arguments to those au fait with the field, although for newcomers they are detailed and sometimes repetitive. The only new material here is some fascinating, if somewhat depressing, empirical data in the chapter by Kathleen Daly and Heather Nancarrow on violence by young men towards their mothers. Daly and Nancarrow end by questioning whether any justice practice could meet all of the complex needs involved in such cases.

The five chapters in the second part examine feminist, anti-racist "hybrid" projects, which build on restorative justice while paying greater attention to victim safety and to community development and mobilisation against both gender-based and racist violence. Some models operate in partnership with the mainstream criminal justice system, while others eschew any collusion with the state, which is seen as being the problem, not the solution. Within this part, Mary P. Koss' work in Arizona on sexual violence is perhaps most well known, and she provides a detailed illustration of the very careful and quite elaborate design of the programme and its various elements, and extensive modifications of the standard restorative justice conferencing model required to meet the concerns and needs of both "survivor victims" and "responsible persons".

We know all too well, from the notorious 6 per cent statistic for UK rape convictions and more, that the mainstream criminal justice system fails abused women. Indeed, Ptacek argues that it should more accurately be termed the "criminal legal system" or the "criminal processing system", because justice is not provided. At the same time, there is a need to resist the state's cooptation of feminist anti-violence activism for its own conservative law-and-order agendas. This book does not offer any easy answers, but it presents important academic and political analyses of the issues and practical examples of new ways of approaching that elusive goal of justice.

Restorative Justice and Violence Against Women

Edited by James Ptacek. Oxford University Press. 308pp, £.50. ISBN 9780195335484. Published 19 November 2009

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