Policy is not destiny: restorative justice between promising premises and broken promises

Giuseppe Maglione

What happens when policy-makers appropriate practices which have grown organically at the margins of criminal justice systems and which may represent a challenge to criminal justice values, aims and goals?

It happens that they first discriminate between those practices' relevant and irrelevant features, their useful and dangerous aspects, and then they translate the relevant/useful bits into policy; that is, into general and abstract norms instrumental to state justice.

Clearly, this process is all but culturally and politically neutral. Translating something into policy is not like taking a snapshot of the ‘world out there’. Instead, it entails the imposition of specific values (hierarchy and coercion), aims (social control) and tools (managerial protocols) upon those marginal justice practices, which hence get profoundly altered.

In the case of restorative justice, this process has meant that some of the promising premises upon which early restorative justice practices relied – to provide a cooperative-transformative approach to social conflicts and harms, based on de-professionalisation, direct stakeholders’ centrality and critique of punishment – have turned into broken promises.

In my paper ‘Restorative justice and the State. Untimely objections against the institutionalisation of restorative justice’, I discuss this process by drawing upon some examples from England and Wales, Norway and France. I contend that state policy and bottom-up (radical) justice practices are incompatible, since the toll to be paid when turning the latter into the former is the loss of any radical potential to create something better than (and in competition with) state justice.

One may argue that ‘the state’ is just an abstraction, and that policy is an instrument in practitioners’ hands. Political power is certainly more (or less) than centralised policy-making bureaucracy and policy does not self-apply. However, disavowing bureaucracy is a naive denial of the most mundane, but still violently real, dimension of political power. Similarly, thinking that practitioners will bend the rules and perhaps challenge the state is realistic, but it also equates with leaving them alone with a massive emancipatory task.

I am not suggesting here that justice ‘in the community’ is the answer. What matters is not ‘where’ justice is pursued, but how. My point is rather that we should reject state policy as a necessary/desirable stage of the institutionalisation of how people deal with conflicts and harms. Yet, this critical awareness would be pointless if separated from the advocacy for radical justice values (like the ones informing early restorative justice practices) and social (including racial and gender) equality.

The sociologist Peter Berger once said that we reach adulthood when we come to terms with our life failures and settle for less than our grand childhood’s dreams. I think that the increasing regulation of restorative justice (and the unhesitant restorative justice movement’s enthusiasm toward this process) is a sign of this practice’s incipient adulthood. Many of its dreams have slowly dried up, leaving room for hyper-realistic concerns of doing more (often with less). I think that the future of a restorative justice which aims to be something better than criminal justice lies with the restorative justice movement’s ability  (and willingness) to rediscover its radical dreams in a bid to generate non-violent ways of addressing the (sometimes tragic) ambivalence of human relationships.

Go back