By Ted Wachtel
I first became aware of restorative justice when Terry O’Connell, an Australian police officer speaking at an event in Pennsylvania, described how he had been inspired by the New Zealand FGC to develop a conference process that enabled police officers to divert young people from court.
He wrote a script to facilitate restorative conferences between offenders, victims and their family and friends, with a set of questions that seemed to satisfy everyone’s needs, while establishing boundaries for police officers who might be tempted to participate in the discussion. Police were instructed to just stick to the written script and ask the questions; don’t intrude into the discussion by the participants.
O’Connell explained that the questions encourage participants to talk about their own experience, and thereby foster a shared understanding of how everyone has been affected by an incident.
I coordinated my efforts with O’Connell when I founded Real Justice™ as a proprietary training program, based on the restorative conference model he developed. Real Justice established a global network that has trained tens of thousands of practitioners around the world, while providing an independent revenue stream that continues to subsidize IIRP’s efforts, including its new master’s degree program in restorative practices.
At the outset, Real Justice was criticized by victim-offender mediators as the “McDonaldization” of restorative justice. However, the quality control achieved by this standardized approach to restorative conferences has enabled the program to maintain fidelity while growing rapidly. The standardization has also enabled large-scale implementation and scientific research.
Evaluations of thousands of Real Justice conferences by varied researchers, in varied settings, with varied offenses and in varied countries, have reliably demonstrated that ninety-plus percent of all participants—victims, offenders and their supporters—express satisfaction and a sense of fairness with the process…an impressive result.
Other research has indicated that Real Justice-type restorative conferences reduce re-offending rates. Despite such positive outcomes, most criminal justice systems have resisted substantial involvement with restorative justice.
In larger countries such as the U.S. and the U.K.—where interest in restorative justice has grown over the years—the number of cases where actual restorative justice is employed is still very small.
In the U.K. there is now an official Restorative Justice Council, and many jurisdictions claim to have implemented some form of RJ; but the March, 2016 Crime Survey for England and Wales reports that only 4.2 percent of victims “were given opportunity to meet offender.”
The Restorative Questions
After retiring from the police service, Terry O’Connell collaborated with Real Justice in opening an office in Australia to further promote conferencing. At the same time, he realized that people could use the questions from the conference script in a variety of informal settings, including classrooms, treatment settings and at home with parenting issues. He put the so-called “restorative questions” he had designed for the conference script onto business cards to make them more readily accessible to parents and practitioners.
O’Connell has freely allowed others to use his copyrighted questions, so that many organizations around the world now distribute his restorative question cards in many languages.