Vol. 15 No.5 (May 2005), pp.376-378

JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE: BUILDING THEORY AND POLICY FROM PRACTICE, by Gordon Bazemore and Mara Schiff.   Portland, OR: Willan Publishing, 2004. 272pp. Cloth. £45.00 / $64.95. ISBN: 1-84392-095-6.  Paperback. £25.00 / $37.50.  ISBN 1-84392-094-8.

Reviewed by Lucy S. McGough, Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University. Email: lmcgoug@lsu.edu .

“Restorative Justice” has been the buzz concept of the last decade in the American criminal and juvenile justice systems.   Every avant garde program planner wanted a pilot program, and community convocations were called to discuss the fabulous new concept that would revolutionize the way we handle offenders and victims.  I went to two such meetings and came away frustrated.  I found the answers to my question, “What is ‘restorative justice’?” to be vague, aspirational and short on explanations of why, how, and most importantly, if the process is effective.  Most experts could articulate the aspiration of returning to a world of citizen responsibility in which criminal prosecutions are brought by private victims or their families, rather than the state, and in which recompense for the crime rather than punishment is the more important sanction. But in many presentations, that idea was disconnected from any strategic plan of how reformers are to achieve that lofty goal.  Likewise, descriptions of scattered programs throughout the country (and in Australia and New Zealand) were not connected to any research demonstrating their effectiveness.  There was the “ought” and the “is” but little else.

This book, by Gordon Bazemore and Mara Schiff, is designed to fill that gap.  To a large extent it is successful.

The goals of JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE are to provide a comprehensive survey of existing programs in the United States, to identify and articulate the theoretical bases for restorative justice decision-making, to develop testable propositions for future research, and to propose a future research agenda.  As Bazemore and Schiff add, “The crux of the problem we hope to address in this volume is therefore twofold: (1) the lack of clear standards that define various degrees of what may be referred to as the “restorativeness” of practice and policies; and (2) the lack of intervention theory that can articulate why various approaches appear to work and why some do not” (p.23).

The authors present three fundamental principles that must underlie any program claiming to be restorative.  The principle of repair involves healing of harm, not only to the victim, but also to the offender and to the community.  This is surely a shift from the focus of the criminal justice system on all scores.   To a somewhat greater degree, the principle of stakeholder participation in the process is honored by the current legal system, at least with the reforms of the last two decades when victims now are permitted to offer impact statements and testify about their injury.  The third [*377] principle, the transformation in community and government roles and relationships, is the most amorphous and hence, the most difficult to achieve or even measure.  The authors note, “In promoting justice, government is responsible for preserving a just order, and community for establishing a just peace” (p.33) While this slogan might qualify for posterdom, it is not helpful in illuminating what transformation is or can be accomplished.  Indeed, the community involvement in restorative justice programs seems to be the least well developed component in current programs.

The book presents a very helpful national inventory of some 773 juvenile justice programs that at least self-report as “restorative” with one or more pilots in all but three states.  The most common model is victim-offender mediation and dialog and followed closely by neighborhood accountability boards.  Circles are quite rare.  Despite the goal of enhancing community involvement, most programs today are sponsored by courts, probation offices or other governmental entities.

Bazemore and Schiff also conducted a qualitative assessment of a sample of 25 ongoing programs.  Their methodology included collecting transcripts of actual sessions.  Portions of these transcripts are scattered throughout the last chapters of the book to illustrate a particular issue and are extremely helpful in letting a reader experience what happens in mediation.  All the didactic discussion of identifying and accepting culpability is far less powerful than showing that issue embedded in an actual transcript like this:

            Facilitator: “What happened?” [directed toward the offender]

            Offender: [addressing the victim] “In any case, I am very sorry the BB struck you.  I was having a party and was shooting a BB gun into the trees . . . four or five people were shooting with me trying to hit squirrels.  I wanted to shoot the gun and made sure no cars were coming.  I tried to shoot the sign and missed.  I was surprised someone was injured.  I wondered who hit the victim.”

            Facilitator: “So you did shoot?”

            Offender: “Yes”

            Facilitator: “What are you taking responsibility for?”

            Offender: “Negligence and carelessness, shooting in public . . . I was surprised someone was injured.  Everyone at the party was pointing the finger at me. There were false statements in the police report. . . a girl said she told the police officer that she told me,’ no, no put the gun down before you get hurt’ . . . she did not say that.  She said that to take herself out of the process.”

            [After several statements from parents]

            Facilitator: “Let’s hear from our community member.”

Community member: “I am confused, and I need to express confusion.  If he was aiming at a sign, I don’t understand how someone was hit unless by ricochet.  I am extremely uneasy giving time here when no one is really accountable for what happened. . . . We are this far into the process and I am angry there is no accountability.  I was shot by a BB also.  My knee was severely damaged.  It changes how you look at the world.  It was a profound event.  I don’t see the responsibility.  I feel a mix of emotions.  This is not a valid process for this.”  [*378]

Gordon Bazemore is clearly an expert in this field; an appendix lists 25 books, book chapters and articles on restorative justice that he has published.  The authors’ proposals for evaluative criteria and suggestions for future research seem well founded and important.  The book certainly makes the concept of restorative justice more accessible than the lion’s share of articles and documentaries that have attempted that task.

For citizens who simply are intrigued by the notion that there may be a better alternative to punishment or those who fear that crime is out of control, this book describes reform possibilities.  For professionals who are exploring the possibility of offering a restorative program, the book is more informative than anything in the field.  For policy makers who must evaluate the efficacy of ongoing restorative justice programs, the book is invaluable.  The theoretical chapters are hard-going for someone who lacks formal training in sociology or psychology, but there is enough other material here to educate and stimulate any reader who is curious about restorative justice.


© Copyright 2005 by the author, Lucy S. McGough.