Sunday, 29 April 2007

Give restorative justice a chance

I have heard so many people say that the youths of today are getting out of control. They cannot be made to behave and they ruin the lives of others, old and young. The ‘tough’ proponents argue that the only solution is to target those who are threatening others with much more stringent measures. Punish them, and possibly their parents too if they are to be found, with eviction from public housing, cuts to their benefits, and prison sentences. Hit them hard until they submit.

The ‘soft’ advocates, on the other hand, maintain that more support should be given to parents and children to help them cope with living in a society with relentlessly growing income inequalities. More supervised time for out of school hour activities, more play facilities, more leisure events which are affordable without being branded as second class, and generally better response to the unmet needs of the marginalized.

But between the tiny minority of young people who really require the most punitive treatment to prevent them from harming others, and the general needs of young people who would otherwise be made to feel neglected and insignificant, there is a substantial group of youngsters who deal with their own deficiencies and low self-esteem by being unpleasant to others. There is no evidence whatsoever that either the tough or soft approach is necessary or sufficient in changing their behaviour.

The only evidence that anything would make a real difference is that gathered by the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales on the impact of restorative justice in schools. Schools in many different areas were introduced to the practice of restorative justice where teachers, and in some cases pupils, were trained as facilitators to bring perpetrators of undesirable behaviour and their victims together to talk through the problems. Crucially the process was to guide the perpetrators to see the hurt they have caused, make a sincere apology, and offer to behave differently. At the same time, it would give the victims an opportunity to have their say, and secure for themselves the assurance they needed.

Apart from the most serious, though thankfully few, cases of violent behaviour, all forms of insulting, bullying, teasing, aggravating behaviour were picked up by the restorative justice approach, and in 93% of the cases across the participating schools a resolution was reached with an agreement signed up to by the perpetrator. But are these agreements worth the paper they were written on? Does anyone take them seriously, you ask. Well, 96% of the agreements were honoured. No wonder, pupils and teachers alike were delighted with the improvement to their schools and confident that they would be sustained. In some schools, the pupils who had trained and practised as facilitators asked their head teachers if they could offer their support to other schools as the problem of abusive and bullying had virtually vanished from their own schools.

So why shouldn’t we have restorative justice practices in every school? Apparently some of those who favour the tough approach believe that they absolved the perpetrators of blame for their bad behaviour and should therefore be rejected as a legitimate way to deal with wrongdoing. But the essence of restorative justice is the recognition of blame and the embrace of personal responsibility to rectify past wrong. Let’s cast dogma aside and give restorative justice a chance.

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