On day 7 of Restorative Justice Week 2021 I would like to share with you the joy of the release of my book Restorative justice from a children’s rights perspective which I edited with Tim Chapman and to which excellent authors from around the world contributed. The flyer was shared in the week of the international day on the rights of the child (20 November) and at the start of Restorative Justice Week 2021. Since my PhD on the same topic in 2012 which I wrote in Dutch I still has the wish to write an English publication. The process took a few years and combines much of the work I have been working on during the last years as a researcher, trainer, lobbyist, mediator and more recently also as a substitute youth judge. Even though I do not yet have a copy of the hard cover edition in my hands, the online launch already was a moment of celebration. Together with five authors, Tim and I held a panel on the World Congress on Justice with Children last week and that is where some of the content was already shared. Renate Winter, judge from Austria and former chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, who also wrote a chapter, pointed at bad examples of child justice systems worldwide. She shared that she became convinced through her work in the field in many countries that restorative justice methods are the answer to harm done by criminal behaviour.
My drive to write this book and to bring views of experts in this field together is based on stories of children, that restorative reactions on harm done by criminal behaviour is a human rights issue and that I have seen that mediations or conferences work well if done in a well prepared and rights-based way. I also saw that there are risks that need to be addressed, that we need to explore needs, rights. Legal and practice experiences worldwide to bring this field further. At the same time, we need to address root causes of crime and work on a solid implementation. Sometimes we seem to discriminate, to impose things on young people and to create risks of re-victimisation. I wanted to bring together promising practices, challenges, research insights and areas that need further study. I also wanted to work with people that inspire me and bring this topic further. And I was honoured and pleased that they all said yes and enjoyed being part of this process.
The content is well summarised by what we wrote on the cover text: This book addresses the relationship between restorative justice and children’s rights, an issue of increasing relevance to restorative justice theory and practice that has thus far received relatively little attention. Readers will find useful reviews of international human rights documents and of legislation, policy and practices in countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, North America, and Oceania. Each of the chapters demonstrates the compatibility between children’s rights and restorative justice. Adopting a rights-based approach is an important means for countries that are interested in further developing restorative justice practices, as it helps restorative processes that are new to the juvenile justice system to gain credibility as well as safeguard young participants’ rights in these processes. In countries where restorative justice has been developed, a rights approach can stimulate innovation and applications beyond the child justice system. The book focuses on both needs and rights of children and young people who caused harm or suffered harm. Some chapters also adopt a critical point of view to explore the tensions between rights and restorative justice in relation to colonisation, welfare models, and professional privilege.
Restorative justice, a child’s right? Reactions to criminal behavior by young people include more and more restorative measures worldwide. In my first chapter I explain this trend from a human rights perspective and address the core principles and values of restorative justice for young suspects or accused persons and young victims. International and regional conventions, recommendations and binding directives show that governments have to create this option for children and young people who come in conflict with the law. It fits with the educational aspects of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the right to participation, the call for diversion and to use detention only as a measure of last resort. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers that restorative measures are a priority above retributive reactions and that reintegration and learning from mistakes are especially important. I argue that restorative justice can be seen as a child’s right in the sense that they should have access to restorative justice measures. The right to be checked if this is a good option and also to withdraw if it turns out to do wrong. If used the implementation should also be rights-proof and protect against risks. It can best be integrated in the heart of youth justice systems.
What can go wrong? Tim Chapman envisaged at the early days of the restorative justice movement that some children’s rights experts were not so open to restorative justice. He wondered why, but studied the topic and concluded that restorative practices can steal the rights of children too. He explored research that also has reported on what can go wrong when involving children in restorative justice. He offers an analysis of how these abuses occur and then suggests how children’s rights can become an integral part of restorative practice through value-led and evidence-based standards of practice. He reiterates that restorative processes aim to restore both personal dignity and just relations. Best practices in restorative justice are based upon the inclusion and active participation of victims and perpetrators of harm, and their supporters, in a process of mutual understanding and agreement on what action to take to address the harm and its consequences. These practices conform to children’s rights such as protection from discrimination, having their views heard and being treated according to their best interests. However, there is increasing evidence that restorative practices do not always respect these rights. Research in different countries show also how it can fail if the right preparations or circumstances are not met, but these can be addressed. If restorative processes are to be truly rights-based, the quality of practice should be assured by standards based upon robust values and research, and upon the quality of the professionals involved.
Including needs. A last chapter that I want to mention is written by Tali Gal, the head of the school of criminology in Haifa, Israel. She deepens her thinking about her Needs-Rights Model for child victims and considers its application to young offenders too. The model integrates legal and psychosocial terminology in order to map the various interests of victimized and victimizing children. By focusing on rights only you miss a tailor made answer to individual needs. By focusing on needs only there is a risk to focus on protection instead of empowerment. Needs as a diagnosis and rights as a platform form together a solid basis. To shift from theory to practice, the chapter reconsiders the eight heuristics for working with victimized children and discusses their implementation when working with young offenders. Tali Gal points at an urgent need to regulate the implementation of child-inclusive restorative justice programs. Restorative justice programs addressing childhood victimization are more likely to emerge within the juvenile justice context, where the focus is on the rehabilitation and reintegration of young perpetrators. A universal model that can be applied to victims as well as to perpetrators provides a useful framework for regulation in these contexts, as it does not require a full-blown diversion from existing restorative justice programs with young offenders. She also shares research needs for the coming period.
Continuation of the work. At Restorative Justice Nederland we will also continue to work on research and practice to make sure that access to restorative justice for all children is getting a real right. Joint lobby resulted in national policy that guides us in that direction. To explore in each case if a restorative reaction is the way forwards should be done in all different stages after criminal behaviour, from prevention till after detention. The book also includes two chapters that are showing the importance of restorative work in schools and in communities. That is an area we will also work on, as well as teaching scholars and students about the topic. The book inspires me further to do so.