Judge Mary Ellen Ring entertained, informed and challenged the large gathering in Whitefriar St. Community Centre, last Tuesday, as she spoke of her (almost!) lifelong interest in and commitment to the practice of Restorative Justice.
Her early introduction, at four years of age, involved the presentation of a thank-you bouquet of flowers to her mother. Unfortunately, until shortly before that presentation, the flowers in question had been flourishing in a neighbour’s garden – much admired by the young Mary Ellen! Her experience of the after-effects of that episode (including her reluctant meeting with the injured party) left a lasting impression, and convinced her of the educational and rehabilitative effects of Restorative Justice, a conviction which has underpinned her on-going interest and work in this area throughout her career.
She went on to describe her first court use of the process in a case involving a drink-fuelled assault in a busy A&E centre. The perpetrator, facing the likelihood of a custodial sentence, agreed to participate in a restorative process and, within a professionally organised structure and with strong family support, saw it through to a satisfactory conclusion. As the judge pointed out, not all R J interventions turn out as well as that first initiative. However, her experience on the bench has convinced her of the value of offering the process as, when it does work, the outcomes for all concerned are so much better than under the more traditional justice system.
She finished with some words of warning and a challenge. The cause of spreading Restorative Justice will not be served by ill thought-out or half-baked approaches to its introduction or operation. She emphasised the need for a properly structured system, run by trained professionals and underpinned by legislation.
As yet there is no legislative basis for its widespread use throughout the Irish justice system. Perhaps this is the next challenge for those of us convinced of its value for the individuals involved as well as for society as a whole?
The meeting also heard a full account of the activities of Facing Forward since the last Open Meeting in June 2015. In response to comments from participants then, a lot of work has taken place on re-structuring the organisation as a company and that work should be completed within the near future. Barbara Walshe, Chair, went on to introduce the members of the current management committee and outlined the philosophy behind all its work. She highlighted the involvement of Facing Forward in various externally-organised Restorative Justice related events and gave details of the training and advocacy (particularly in relation to the Victim’s Directive)work carried out by members during the past 18 months.
She finished by mentioning Facing Forward’s Action Plan for the next year, with particular reference to the organisation’s work to further raise awareness of the value of Restorative Justice both independently and in cooperation with other organisations, the dissemination of a Code of Best Practice, and to the development of a fund-raising initiative in order to make all this possible.
The meeting ended with general discussion among participants on the way forward and among the points made were:
The need to adopt a short, pithy vision statement along the lines of ‘Restorative Justice for everyone who wants it’;
The need to ensure that a definition of Restorative Justice is included in the legislation giving effect to the Victim’s Directive;
The importance of organisations pooling their respective expertise (legal, experiential etc.) to work on submissions promoting Restorative Justice;
The importance of promoting Restorative Justice in a wide range of environments, not just the justice system;
The media’s emphasis on personal stories raises huge ethical issues and limits our scope for spreading the word, yet those who participated in the SAVI report found the experience very cathartic;
A Restorative Justice process needs to be continued beyond the court / prison environment to provide on-going support to those involved;
There is a real need for a ‘release programme’ within the prison system, prisoners and the wider community need to be prepared for the release of a prisoner back into that community.