Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Combating crime by restoring relationships



When devising policies for people on the margins of society — people in the justice system, Indigenous people, refugees and unemployed for example — Australian governments seem always to settle on measures that are punitive and counterproductive. Memories of Port Arthur, the poorhouse and the hulks seem to exercise an abiding fascination. Certainly, the way we imagine the world has a strong influence on policy.

Hand emerging from darkness. Photo by AHMET YARALI via GettyIn the popular premises that influence penal policy in most Australian states, the value of human beings and their acceptance into society is conditional on good behaviour. People are individuals responsible for their own lives. They are not set within a network of relationships. The natural response to bad behaviour is, therefore, to exclude them and so protect society. Society, in turn, has no responsibility to them.

This view stands in contrast with the way of imagining the world adopted by most humanitarians, as is caught in the insights enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching. It sees each human being as precious with an inalienable dignity independent of intelligence, wealth or good behaviour. Human beings, too, depend on one another for life and wellbeing and so are responsible to each other. The good of each depends on a shared commitment to the good of all. Finally, society has a particular responsibility to people who are isolated and disadvantaged.

This suggests that, although imprisonment has a place in penal policy as a last resort to protect the community, the focus should be on the persons who perpetrate crime and on those who are damaged by it. Penal policy, like all policy, is ultimately about ensuring just relationships.

Although government rhetoric and initiatives sometimes make reference to rehabilitation, in the face of public anxiety about crime politicians usually emphasise retribution through prison sentences. The policy is destructive both to the people caught in it and to society.

People commit crimes because their connections with society are weak. They have often received no respect and are unable to give it. Isolation from families and society in prisons intensifies their disconnection, and explains why so many reoffend on leaving jail. The emphasis on imprisonment injures society because it leads to antisocial behaviour and diverts resources that could have been dedicated to community health and education to profit the wealthy companies that run prisons.

In imagining a response to crime, the first step is to see both those who commit crime and those hurt by it as persons, each with a unique value, and to see the crime as a sign of broken relationships leading to a lack of due respect and a lack of connection to society on the part of the perpetrator. The challenge is to encourage the persons who offend to grow in respect so that they accept their accountability to the people offended and to representatives of the community. This is called restorative justice.


"Restorative justice is a far deeper and more effective way of addressing the harm that we do to one another than shaming and isolating the person who causes it."


Programs of restorative justice work to build reconciliation based on truth and being accountable to one another. These are found notably in Sweden and Maori communities in New Zealand, and also in Australia by Jesuit Social Services and other Youth Justice Group Conferencing programs in Victoria and the Northern Territory for young people otherwise facing custodial sentences.

They recognise the isolation that both the perpetrator and victims of crime can experience, and involve the community in a conversation that hopefully will end in the reconciliation between victim and perpetrator based on the acceptance of accountability to the community, and support for the perpetrator to connect practically with society.

The formal restorative process begins with a time, perhaps a month or more of preparation, in which a facilitator meets victims and perpetrators separately, listening to their experience of the crime and its aftermath, and establishing whether they are ready to meet face to face.

Then the facilitator accompanied by members of the community, including relatives and representatives of government programs, will meet victims and perpetrators together so that each can share their experience of the crime and its consequences. This conversation leads to perpetrators taking responsibility for what they have done and accepting that they are accountable to the community to repair the harm they have caused. What this means is the subject of further shared conversation.

Community representatives will then continue to work with perpetrators so that they deepen their change of mindset and receive the support necessary to enable them to realise their newfound determination to contribute to society.

We have described the formal process of restorative justice deployed in response to crime. It is effectively used, however, in many other contexts. Two people in conflict in a workplace can use the process informally to ensure that both understand how their conduct hurts the other and the workplace community, and that this harm does not grow.

It is also used informally in many schools to address conflict between students or bad behaviour that affects the school community. It is particularly valuable in educational settings because it helps inarticulate people to find words to describe their strong feelings and to recognise the consequences for the community of their behaviour.

Both in formal and informal settings restorative justice is a far deeper and more effective way of addressing the harm that we do to one another than shaming and isolating the person who causes it.



Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. Madison Rosaia is a policy intern at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image by AHMET YARALI via Getty

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Madison Rosaia, restorative justice, New Zeland, Maori, Sweden



submit a comment

Existing comments

Sometimes assumptions are made about conflict between two people. A situation develops where other people are brought into the conflict zone and then the other people 'choose sides'. An escalation occurs and people are further alienated from each other. This is especially damaging when one of the people in the conflict uses influence or power to bring the other person around to their way of thinking. That is not restorative justice. It is manipulation. As described in the article the aim should be to bring an awareness of actions that are hurting the other person. Unfortunately, too often there is a power imbalance between the persons and specialised knowledge by mediators is needed to overcome this.

Pam | 26 July 2019  

It is interesting that the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester went on the public record recently, saying that much more effort and funding were needed at grass roots level to build up families and to restore societal connections in order to prevent the increasing crime rate. If someone within the police can say this, society as a whole needs to listen and its political leaders need to act. Australia is, in many ways, a very similar society to Britain. Another contributory cause of crime here, as in Britain, is sheer grinding poverty and all the societal evils it brings. The Newstart Allowance - pitifully inadequate to live on in any major city in Australia - needs to be raised dramatically and the Job Network needs scrapping and redesign, so that something like the old Commonwealth Employment Service is established, with national priorities in real education and training, as exist in the Scandinavian countries, rather than the pathetic 'band aid' courses currently provided. The scrapping of the elementary and utterly useless Job Club for welfare recipients is needed. There are good agencies like the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service, which are doing excellent work that should be a vital part of any new scheme to change things. This is not 18th Century England: we need positive change.

Edward Fido | 29 July 2019  

I fully support the principle of restorative justice but we must remember that fully two thirds of the young people in custody are suffering from brain dysfunction (Bower et al. 2018, BMJ) ... people with brain injuries will struggle to take responsibility and repair the harm. We need to work hard at recognising cognitive disabilities in the early years at school before children reach the age of criminal responsibility. Children supported by the NDIS are far less likely to be excluded from school and fall into the criminal justice system.

Meg Perkins | 30 July 2019  

Thanks for this article.It strikes me that this is what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is about.The current celebration of this sacrament has all but disappeared and the potential of the Third Rite has been so constrained.Perhaps this may be the area of the Church's ministry for the future -sacramental reconciliation through restorative justice.It would certainly give some meaning to the sacrament.

Chris | 31 July 2019  

This is the first time I have seen someone actually connect RJ with Catholic social teaching and I thank you for this. MY problem with RJ, particularly in schools, is that it is presented without any reference to its religious or theological roots, and this it becomes another encrusting layer without any ability to breathe within the construct of Catholic social justice teaching. Aside from which, if we are practicing what we preach, there should be no need for RJ, which suggests, somewhere along the line, we've lost our way with the core mission message.

In hac lacrimarum vale | 03 August 2019  

As one who was a mediator for more many years I am very aware of the tenets of restorative justice and long to see it used more widely as it gives the parties to crime the opportunity to speak about their experience in the presence of the perpetrator who may begin to realize the true cost of their behaviour to others.

Merlin Sykes | 05 August 2019