Prison for punishment, or for "restoration"?

Is it possible to “heal” the wounds caused by crime, instead of simply punishing criminals with prison sentences? This was the idea expressed in a memorandum, circulated in the year 2000, in which the former Justice Minister, Marc Verwilghen, established a new category of actors in the prison system: consultants for restorative justice. Christophe Dubois has written a dissertation in sociology concerning the success (or lack thereof) of the efforts of these consultants in Belgian prisons, in relation to the utopian challenge that was laid before them.

October 2000: in the wake of the Dutroux affair and the "Marche blanche", in which hundreds of thousands of Belgians expressed their low opinion of the nation’s justice system and police forces, reform was the word on everyone's lips. And it was at that moment that then-Justice Minister Marc Verwilghen released a memorandum intended to introduce the concept of "restorative justice" to the prison system. What was involved? The idea had been a subject of debate in faculties of criminology; and calls had been issued for increased support for victims. It was claimed that a “third way”, between classical models of “retributive” justice, based on an equivalence between an infraction and the punishment that “repays” it, and models of “rehabilitative justice” based on preparing a violator for re-entering society successfully, should be tried out.

“Restorative justice” was in theory aimed at repairing a relationship damaged by crime – a relationship between the violator, the victim, and society at large. But the programme itself was immense. The system would attempt to change the culture of prisons, leading violators to use their time in prison trying to “repair” the damage they had caused, instead of passively suffering their loss of freedom. Anything else? one is tempted to ask. And the social science professionals who were handed the job of trying to re-orient penal politics might have asked the same question. The CJR’s (consultants in restorative justice) were sent one by one into Belgium’s 31 prisons. They have been at work for seven years.

We might wonder how these young social science graduates, unfamiliar with the prison system as such, tried to come to grips with the problem they had been assigned to solve, in prisons where their appearance was unexpected, where they had to locate resources and set up their own shops – how they translated an obscure ministerial memo into concrete practices. And this is what Christophe Dubois has done, successfully, in a dissertation that is being co-sponsored by the Institut d’études politiques of Paris and the University of Liège. The dissertation was the subject of an interesting article that appeared in the magazine Performances publiques (Larcier) .

The Verwilghen memo of October 4 in fact was not related to any request from the prison system itself. Almost no one among wardens, prison staff, and even inmates had ever heard of “restorative justice” before the first CJR’s arrived. But the project was part of an even more extensive political reform package, involving the legal status of prisoners, a reform of the conditional release system, and the creation of sentencing tribunals in which the appropriateness of punishments could be argued (among other things).

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