Updated: Aug 8
Restorative Justice (RJ) - the process by which a survivor of a crime or trauma voluntarily meets with the perpetrator, with the help of specialists - is controversial. Some survivors understandably feel they could never again look into the face of someone who has caused them immense harm. However, in countries and incidences where RJ has been implemented, there is now a plethora of evidence to suggest that having access to these services (should a survivor want to go through with RJ) is extraordinarily beneficial.
This holds true from the survivor’s point of view, who undergoes a revelatory experience of healing and closure. In fact, a seven-year study by the UK government found that 85% of survivors who go through the experience feel satisfied with the outcome. But it is also true for perpetrators and in turn, wider society, as RJ has shown to reduce rates of reoffending by up to 14%. The findings show that allowing perpetrators to personally confront their actions and the people they’ve harmed is far more effective than a carceral system based on punishment alone, or a carceral system that provides victim empathy support without the survivor’s input or presence. RJ may be uncomfortable to consider, especially in cases of sexual harm. But this discomfort is precisely because it overturns our own ingrained notions of criminality as inherent, justice as retribution, and compassion as weakness. In their wake, RJ promotes cooperation, healing, forgiveness, rehabilitation, and empathy for survivors and perpetrators alike.
Success story: Belgium
Belgium has one of the most comprehensive RJ systems in the world, thanks to personal connections between academics and criminal justice professionals who began discussing its potential benefits as early as the 1980s. At the time, Belgium was facing overcrowding in its prisons, and a higher rate of criminality per 100,000 people than other EU-27 countries. This context meant there was a desire for reform, and throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, legislation for RJ was implemented for crimes at all levels of severity, at any stage of prosecution, and for offenders who were either adults or minors. This means that mediation can take place even before a conviction has been secured, as long as the perpetrator has formally accepted responsibility for the crime and all parties have voluntarily agreed to meet. Mediation can take many forms, including correspondence, communication through a mediator, and face-to-face meetings.
Starting in Leuven, over time RJ became an option in all prisons across Belgium. While legislation for mediation exists for minor crimes, such as traffic incidents, the majority of RJ mediations in Belgium consist of violent crimes (38%) and sexual harm (22%). Even for crimes of this severity, RJ has proven to help both survivor and perpetrator move on with their lives.
One such story is John, serving time in Leuven prison for serial offences of sexual harm. While survivors are often the ones who request RJ, it was in this incident John who initiated RJ mediation with the people he harmed. After a mediator had told him how he had made one of the survivors feel during the assault, he began developing panic attacks. In an interview with a Belgian radio station, he stated: ‘I had a kind of hyperventilation because I couldn’t deal with what I had done. It was the first time I was confronted with the harm I had caused, and it’s something I have to deal with.’ Understanding that John had been shaken and scared by this revelation, the survivor started feeling she was regaining power over the situation. ‘The moment I heard he was scared was the point I felt totally comfortable, because psychologically I felt very strong,’ she reported.
According to the survivor, mediation was not always easy, but persistent communication was what allowed progress. ‘I asked him to write a letter to me and it was full of “I” this and “I” that. I marked all the “I” bits and sent it back and said “you are a selfish person.” He was very angry with that. Through mediation you learn a lot about the person and you catch the weak points.’
As a consequence, John has expressed remorse for what he has done. ‘I have done something very wrong and I take responsibility. I was not convinced [about mediation] in the beginning. I was just doing it for [the survivor] and not for my own sake. But now I am convinced that it has helped me. For one thing, I am sure I will never want to harm someone like that again.’
John and the survivor’s mediator told a similar story, saying: ‘I once had mediation with [a] guy who wanted to conduct a robbery but needed a car, so he went hitch-hiking, stopped some guy and killed him. The mediation with the victim's father was very difficult for him because he saw all the pain. The father told stories about how his son lived and all about his hobbies so the offender would understand that he had killed not just something, but somebody.’
As legislation and services have improved over time, the rate of positive outcomes for RJ mediations has reached a height of 91% starting in 2014. While Belgian stats on the rates of reoffending in relation to RJ meetings have yet to be published, there is evidence to show that there is a high percentage of offenders who fulfil the commitments they made during meetings with survivors. This is an outcome that should hopefully alleviate anxieties that offenders are pretending to have empathy in order to shorten their sentencing. Although plans for RJ’s implementation in Scotland will require a conviction to already be secured, so that there is no incentive for perpetrators to undergo RJ, the evidence is there to suggest that this need not be the case for RJ’s success. Crucially, principles of neutrality on the part of mediators and government funding have ensured Belgium remains a country to learn from regarding RJ’s implementation.
Success in England: Jo’s story
Unlike Belgium, RJ has not been implemented systematically within the English criminal justice system. However, there are a number of success stories that have come out of RJ meetings in England, which demonstrate the positive impact RJ can have on both survivor and perpetrator.
In 2004, Jo was violently sexually assaulted by a man she knew called Darren. She immediately reported it, and by January the following year the perpetrator was securely convicted. Nonetheless, the aftermath was devastating. Scared of noises, not wanting to go outside: Jo felt she was simply ‘existing’, not living.
By the time it came to the trial, Jo had begun to process what had happened. Jo went to the trial - despite not needing to, as Darren pleaded guilty - because she wanted to show that she was unafraid of facing Darren. However, there were certain aspects of the trial and sentencing that didn’t sit right with Jo. Namely, the judge had made a comment that Darren had ‘ruined [Jo’s] life.’ She understood why the judge had said it, but she didn’t feel it reflected her thoughts on the situation at all. ‘I didn’t want Darren to go through life thinking that. Because I didn’t want him to think that he still had that power and control over me and that he had ruined my life.’ When she heard that Darren was undergoing victim empathy work, she was outraged that someone who was not a survivor of sexual violence was speaking on her behalf. ‘How could anyone tell him how I felt that day, how he made me feel, how he made my family feel, apart from me? Nobody knows what it’s like to be raped unless they have been raped.’
This sense of disempowerment motivated Jo to seek a meeting with Darren. Their reactions surprised each other: as Jo explained the assault from her perspective, and how she had feared for her life, Darren began to cry. She was surprised that he made eye-contact throughout, and that he didn’t try to make excuses. While she wasn’t expecting an apology, she received what she felt to be a sincere one. Darren was worried that Jo would be angry and screaming at him, and was surprised that she was calm (but emotive), and asked him what he planned to do when he was out of prison. Jo explained: ‘I knew it was hard for him to listen to, so a couple of times I changed the conversation to what he was doing now and what he was hoping to do once he was released. We even had a laugh together, something which a few people have found difficult to understand.’
Jo’s compassionate approach clearly made an impact, and when she told Darren she had chosen to forgive him, he was in shock. ‘I told him I had forgiven him for what he had done because hatred just eats you up. [...] Darren couldn’t believe what I was saying.’ Jo admitted that it might not be a decision everyone understood, but it was the right one for her. Later, she was told that this decision to forgive Darren allowed him to move on to better choices in his life.
Summarising the face-to-face meeting, Jo emphasised how much it has helped her move on in her life, too. ‘I no longer see myself as a victim of rape. I am a survivor of rape, and actually that meeting has made me a better and stronger person.’
What these stories show is that we should never underestimate the strength and resilience a survivor has, qualities which allow them to confront the person who has harmed them with grace, maturity, and often forgiveness. RJ is not for everyone, and survivors will heal in ways that are best for them. But access to these services is vital for ensuring survivors have a say and a choice, when the criminal justice system has previously placed its focus squarely on the perpetrator. The positive impact for survivors is reason enough to implement RJ systematically in Scotland and across the UK, but the added benefits of effectively rehabilitating perpetrators and reducing rates of reoffending demonstrate the difference it makes for perpetrators, too. In turn, we all benefit from a society that strives to prevent harm rather than retroactively punish it. With Belgium as a case study to learn from, Scotland too is on an exciting trajectory to shift criminal justice towards valuing survivors’ voices and creating an empathetic environment for all to heal and grow.
For more info on RJ in Scotland, please visit here. Let’s be part of this revolutionary change and create a better, safer world for all.