n Acta Criminologica: Southern African Journal of Criminology - Restorative approaches to justice : "compulsory compassion" or victim empowerment?

Volume 20, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 1012-8093



A core value in restorative justice is to balance offender needs, victim needs, and the needs of the community. Critiques of wide scale implementation of restorative justice practices, both within and outside the criminal justice system, have highlighted the need to prioritize victims' needs above all else. As South Africa moves closer towards translating restorative justice policy to practice the question that arises is : 'Do restorative justice practices really prioritize the needs of victims, or is it more a case of 'compulsory compassion'; using victims to help reform and reintegrate offenders into society, justify diversion from the criminal justice system, reduce court rolls and alleviate overcrowding in our correctional facilities? If not, how then can we ensure that the needs of victims are met and the proclaimed outcomes of restorative justice are indeed victim focused? The question of whether a shift from punitive to restorative justice would benefit victims is a very complex one and evidence of how satisfied victims are with restorative justice processes can play only a small role in helping us answer the question. Therefore, the vexing question is how best to effectively and innovatively integrate restorative processes into the formal criminal justice system so that the most important outcome i.e. empowerment for victims may be achieved? While restorative justice initiatives are increasingly prominent in juvenile justice legislation in many jurisdictions internationally, this new paradigm may still be viewed as merely a small scale response to minor crime and disputes/conflict where crimes regarded as not sufficiently serious for a full scale penal response, would then be diverted to restorative justice programmes. Such a development would allow the criminal justice system to step up its response to minor crimes which might individually seem trivial but collectively constitute a major social problem, without overloading the system. Although attractive to governments, from a victim's perspective there are clear limitations and dangers inherent with this approach. The incorporation of restorative justice ideas and techniques into the criminal justice process may not turn out to be in any broader sense about restorative justice. For example, the idea of victim offender mediation may be taken up, but without an emphasis on achieving restorative outcomes, but rather a source of useful ideas and techniques in the fight against crime, especially youth crime, with no fundamental change in the character or focus of the criminal justice system. This article aims to expand the debate and consider critically the advantages and shortcomings of restorative justice, especially in cases of intimate violence (taking into account the extraordinarily high rates of violent crime against women and children in South Africa). An integrated, multi-sectoral approach involving collaboration with the relevant government departments (National Prosecuting Authority, Departments of Social Development, Justice, Safety and Security, Health, Correctional Services and Education) is suggested so that clear strategies may be developed to facilitate responses from the moment a crime occurs until the final restorative elements have been completed. Victim services and support would need to be made available regardless of whether the accused offender is apprehended or not, which should continue to be available at the request of the victim regardless of the pace of the processes determining offender accountability. The primary aim of restorative justice initiatives should be to provide better services for victim and heal and strengthen communities (with possible long term crime prevention effects). The article highlights the difficulties associated with applying restorative approaches in cases of intimate violence against women and children, and proposes that the primary focus should be on victim safety and not merely offence seriousness and willingness of the offender to participate. In this regard some important practical and ethical questions for restorative justice practitioners are raised. Clearly the agenda for implementation and strengthening of restorative practices in the criminal justice system has to go hand in hand with victim support and empowerment, for which many policies already exist. Perhaps a future South African model for the implementation of restorative justice should keep the empowerment of victims at the forefront.

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