IVO AERTSEN AND TONY PETERS
"An Action Research Project on Restorative Justice in Corrections
Based on the experience of several victimisation studies and on the experience of the mediation for redress project, an action research has been initiated.5
One part of the research concentrates on the development of a restorative and victim-oriented correctional service.
The project refers to the correctional policy statement of the Minister of Justice of June 19, 1996, in which the primary goal of the correctional service (safe and humane corrections aiming at the social reintegration of the convicted person) has been for the first time linked with the ideas of restorative justice (restitution, redress and reparation). Social reintegration is dependent on the recognition of victims and/or the acceptance of responsibility for restorative actions.
Restorative justice becomes a lever for the action to reintegrate the offender in society.
This represents a new approach to corrections and it complicates the traditional way of thinking because it puts a third party on stage.
Instead of the bilateral relationship of the state and the criminal justice system and corrections on the one hand and the offender on the other hand, the new approach recognises a triad relationship between society, victim and offender.
Although there was in some cases a place for the victim as a ‘civil party’, the action of financial compensation has always been moved to the extreme borderline of correctional concerns.
The financial compensation of the victim was kept dormant until the moment of release.
Then it reappeared as a difficult, often neglected duty or as an almost impossible and frustrating condition for parole.
The action research project is meant to concentrate on the development of concrete restorative actions in six correctional facilities.
A co-ordinating researcher is the central figure who provides scientific support and service
for six practitioners whose role it is to see what can be done in each of the penal institutions.
They have to take into account the specificity of the penitentiary setting, the different categories of inmates in place, the opinions and attitudes of the staff, the openness for the ideas of restorative justice, relations with the social surroundings, the presence and concerns of victim assistance and the victim movement. There are of course links already present and there is also the pressure of public concern about victims and the meaning of the prison sentence.
Financial compensation, though usually not the most important concern, remains a problematic point which can no longer be neglected. It has to be approached in the complex context of a possible imposed civil judgement by the court on the one hand and the problematic financial situation which most inmates face (remaining debts in the outside society and the extremely low income from prison labour) on the other hand. This is a primary area of action in the project.
One of the principles is to work on these problems from the time the prison sentence is meted out by the court. Work done previously in this area reveals a big problem of adequate information. Many inmates do not receive correct information and the correctional service itself is often not well informed about this aspect of the sentence.
Another point is the development of an agreement with the victim’s lawyer about the payment by instalment to the civil party.
The information that needs to be provided to victims and victim services about corrections and the correctional programmes is another important point that needs to be addressed in correctional policy.
The lack of information evokes a lot of frustration among victims and their social network as well as among ordinary citizens. So many prejudices can be removed through correct information given in due time. When no adequate information has been given prior to the moment of speculation about an early release or parole, it is extremely difficult to come to a normal process of information exchange.
The involvement of the prison staff on the one hand and the outside institutions of victim assistance and offender support on the other hand is another major point in the development of restorative and victim-oriented corrections. They have to be prepared to rethink their position and work according to restorative principles. It is impossible to require offenders to assume responsibility and to take part in redress and compensation if the principle is not accepted by victims and by the professional people working with both parties.
There is clearly a need for a complete shift in thinking about crime and the new problem-solving approaches to restorative justice."
5Key stones for a coherent restorative and victim-oriented justice policy: a research project financially supported by the Ministry of Scientific Policy and carried out by the Research Group Penology and Victimology of the Catholic University of Leuven in collaboration with the Free University of Brussels and the University of Liège.