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RJ4ALL response to the inquiry into children and young people in custody

RJ4All open letter to The Justice Committee

Thank you for the invitation to feed directly into your review. The Restorative Justice for All International Institute is focusing this submission on issues that I believe will complement other statements while using evidence from our existing and past projects as an international research institute.

The overcrowded prisons and the inhumane conditions to which young people and children are subjected, the increasing number of suicides by young prisoners internationally, the high rates of reoffending and the rising costs of incapacitation as a policy and a philosophy for crime control are some of the factors that populists quote in their search for more attractive solutions. Since most governments are determined to cut down their national deficits by any means possible, this presents a unique opportunity to rethink existing strategies within the youth justice system. And I emphasise the word within. 

As the evidence of our programmes show, restorative justice in prison settings is widespread, but piecemeal, inconsistent and sometimes invisible. Restorative justice is also characterised by numerous implementation barriers and definitional ambiguity. While there is thorough evaluation of restorative justice with certain offences, in others areas, including its application within prisons, the evidence is still accumulating. The limited data suggests, however, that the restorative justice practice – and most importantly the values underlying its ethos – are able to provide answers that many psychologists, criminologists, social workers and prison staff have strived to find.

As one young offender said: “Punish me now – and I won’t do that again today … Teach me how not to offend and I am sorted for a lifetime”

Our response also aims to bring to forth the issue of race and discrimination. Here, I must give a word of warning as you conduct your review. Having worked in the BAME sector as well as through my research on race, I have concluded that to truly have a debate on race, first there needs to be an acknowledgement that such a debate is needed. Are we truly ready to have this debate? I fear for yet another “ticking box” review, having observed the many inquiries that followed the Stephen Lawrence murder. Let me explain: Many have argued that the “Trojan horses of race” (Kang, 2005) make it difficult for the white decision-maker to overcome the implicit bias that is ingrained against racial minorities notwithstanding sincere self-reports to the contrary. This sub-conscious resistance is also experienced from non-white groups. 

This submission assumes an acceptance of the term ‘race’ within a sociological understanding. This might indeed be a challenge for some who seem to be focused on a ‘black’ interpretation of the term. In my view, focusing exclusively on black communities does not fully reflect the impact of power structures that affect us all, and indeed on how society uses the term ‘race’ to refer to all those affected by such dynamics. (Let me be clear that specialist services and focused research and programme must continue in order for practices and policies to be effective). 

It is the power structures within our society and our criminal justice system that I want to bring to the forthof your review and race discussions more generally. I have launched a research programme to this effect and a call for case studies has been released, and I would be happy to send you the results as these accumulate over the years. 

Putting our emphasis on bringing balance to the power structures that racialize us all and cause pain, suffering and discrimination in public services (and the criminal justice system), we find alternative ways of delivering fairness. That is why for the last 15 years I have been a student of restorative justice, a concept and a practice that has been revived in the hope of bringing balance between the state and the parties in conflict (victims and offenders). The restorative process demands power-sharing that is based on the premise that all parties in conflict are equal in the identification of harm, and in reaching an agreement for restitution (Gavrielides, 2014). 

Some argue that one of the reasons that restorative justice was brought back into the modern world of policy and practice is the growing disappointment of our criminal justice systems (e.g. Newburn and Crawford, 2002; Pavlich, 2005). These writings tend to quote the increasing incarceration rates, recidivism statistics, the rising costs of justice and the inability to protect the public from current and new forms of criminality. 

Over the last few years, we have seen a growing interest by our government in restorative justice. This interest is welcomed, but the policies and funding that have resulted from it are deeply concerning. I have provided evidence to this effect expressing my view that the top down support that has been provided reproduces the power structures that the very notion of restorative justice was meant to address. Notwithstanding, restorative justice will continue to be delivered by communities with or without formal support. I ask that you look into the potential of these programmes as well as other user led and user focused practices that are scrutinised by BAME individuals and their sector. There are examples that we have identified aiming to shape a probation system that is informed and quality controlled by users including those from BAME backgrounds. 

Relinquishing power within the current philosophy of adversarial justice and economics is in itself a challenge. Relinquishing power within a system that is challenged by the implicit biases and ‘Trojan horses of race’ is an even more complex matter. I acknowledge the difficult task that you are undertaking. The RJ4All International Institute is at your disposal should you require clarifications and further evidence. As a membership organisation we also aim to share this submission with our members and database subscribers. We would also be happy to share any response that you might have to what we have proposed.

Dr. Theo Gavrielides

RJ4All Founder & Director

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