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Contemporary Penology and Restorative Justice

Time for Moral Courage and Political Bravery. Page 1/3
by David J Cornwell (author of The Penal Crisis and the Clapham Omnibus).
July 2010.

But, the reader may insist, these are all well-known 'facts of social life'. Why, then, do they merit re-statement? The answer to this question, it might be contended, depends upon the extent to which our collective social and moral conscience is able to justify and tolerate penal policies that persist in punishing rather than ameliorating social disadvantage and its outcomes manifested in criminal behaviour. And, lest we forget, in the process of pursuing the urge to punish, we visit that punishment not only upon offenders and those immediately dependent upon them, but also upon those offended against as the largely ignored victims of crime, and upon the communities that are affected by the prevalence of offending behaviour. It is in response to the vicarious nature of the prevailing punishment agenda that Restorative Justice (RJ) has emerged, and may assist us in eliminating its effects to a very considerable extent.

Over the past two decades a considerable literature has been assembled on, and in support of, the way in which RJ might enable us to adopt a more understanding and effective way of dealing with offending behaviour in a social context. There is also a justifiable consensus among the proponents of RJ that in addition to dealing more humanely and reasonably with offenders and offences, a considerable reduction in re-offending (or recidivism) might become both a reality and an additional social benefit if it were to be adopted more widely within criminal justice processes.

RJ views offending in a different framework from that of the 'traditional' legal approach: it views crime more as a violation of people and relationships than of the law and the state. It insists that these violations create obligations to put matters right rather than merely ascriptions of 'guilt'. Its focus is a concern for the needs of victims and on the responsibility of offenders to repair the harm done, more than with offenders 'getting their just deserts'. The primary requirements of RJ are that offenders take responsibility for what they have done wrong, offer genuine apology and understanding for the harm they have caused, and then take some action to make reparation to those offended against. State law makes no such demands upon offenders, and affords victims no specific status in its preoccupation with ensuring that the 'guilty' are punished.

RJ provides an appropriate way of diverting many 'low level' or less serious offenders who accept its demands from the need to be held in prisons, enabling them to address their wrongdoing (and possibly also their addictions) and make reparation to victims within the communities in which they normally reside. By involving communities and organisations in identifying appropriate work projects in which offenders can participate, means can be made available for reparation to be made from earnings, and the projects completed for the enhancement of community amenities. In the same process, offenders can also learn new skills that improve their long-term employability, and thus their potential to lead law-abiding lives in the future.

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