Relational Justice recognizes that getting relationships right is foundational to preventing crime, achieving fair outcomes for victims, and restoring offenders to a meaningful place in society.
- Criminal justice systems in Western societies have generally failed to reduce the number of criminal offences. Both the U.S. and the UK have overcrowded prisons with little sign of numbers going down.
- According to the Prison Reform Trust (2014), the prison system as a whole in England and Wales has been overcrowded every year since 1994. At the end of March 2014, 77 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded.
- In England and Wales, 46% percent of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. Reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners in 2007-08 cost the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion.
- In the year 2000, the ratio of prison officers to prisoners was 1:2.9. By the end of September 2013 this had increased to almost 1:5.
What are we trying to do?
The most fundamental question about criminal justice is what we are trying to achieve. The current system consists of a rather uneasy blend of objectives. Justice is about retribution – inflicting pain on the offender because he or she has disobeyed the rules of society. It is also about public safety – keeping the offender away from potential future victims. And simultaneously it is about rehabilitation – the attempt to use punishment as a means of turning the offender into a productive citizen. All these frameworks treat the offender as an individual unit of criminality, to be apprehended, tried, punished and rehabilitated by society at large through a collection of specialist agencies.
The impact of relationships
In reality, a large number of crimes are committed against other individuals, and represent a trauma within a particular relationship – even if the offender and the victim have not previously interacted. Further, criminality itself is often associated with problems in offenders’ past relationships, including, typically, a dysfunctional family background or a sense of exclusion from social groups. In other words, it is hard to understand or rehabilitate an offender except with reference to his or her relational context. Also, it is hard to see that one can incarcerate offenders together without the risk of forging closer relationships inside the criminal community.
The exclusion of victims
An almost inevitable result of the state acting on behalf of victims is that victims tend to feel marginalized and disempowered by the court process. Yet relational damage is often most effectively tackled in the context of relationships – hence the widespread success of restorative justice, where offenders are required to put right the damage they have caused in the relationship with the victim. Not all crimes can be handled this way – but many can.
Crime is primarily a relational event between the offender and the victim – not between the offender and the state. So the goal of criminal justice should be to address damage to specific relationships as well as to uphold what society defines as the moral order.
Where justice is served
This applies to the ethos and working practices of the police, the courts, the prisons and the probation services. CCTV cameras work as a deterrent to crime precisely because an adjustment has been made to the directness and continuity of the potential offender’s connection to the police. But this is more effective when backed up by the presence of actual officers on the street, and more effective still when those officers can build relationships with the communities they patrol.
Shortening Relational Distance
Courts should not be concentrated in large urban centres as a means of cost-saving, because the need to travel far from home often discourages potential witnesses from attending and thus contributes to poor judicial decisions. Similarly, a much wider range of petty criminal cases could be dealt with at local level, given adequate, trained professional support. Participation in the processes of criminal and social justice is a powerful way for the public to engage with the community values and interests, and also has the effect of strengthening bonds among community members.
Alternatives to courts
An example would be Family Group Conferences, where the extended families of the offender and the victim meet to resolve the issues brought about by the crime and to agree an appropriate punishment. While only applicable in relatively minor crimes, this method has been shown to achieve a marked reduction in re-offending rates, as offenders are forced to face up to the relational consequences of their actions. A more familiar variation of the same idea is Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Relational Prison Management
Issues in the prison system include whether prisoners are enabled to eat together rather than in isolation in their cells, whether prison officers share the same tables, and how much time prisoners are allowed out of their cells each day for work, exercise and socializing. Another crucial issue is the quality of the visiting facilities, and whether offenders are located close to where their relatives live to make it easier for them to visit. When prisoners are released, effective probation may be less about control and more about providing relational support as the offender re-enters civilian life.
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