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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Seek Relationships continued..

September 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Relational Justice

Relational Justice began in the early 1990s when the low level of debate regarding crime and punishment was summed up by then Prime Minister John Major’s unreflective nostrum “condemn a little more, understand a little less”. In the years since then we have, in certain respects, got better at asking the relational question in the UK. We’ve seen the introduction of ‘restorative conferencing’ and mediation for young offenders, as well as community conferencing to resolve incidents of anti-social or semi-criminal behaviour. An intentional multi-agency approach has led to closer working relationships between criminal justice agencies and there has been greater support for victims. Parenting, reparation and action plan orders have all entered the penal lexicon along with ‘cluster courts’ and formal schemes for mentoring and ‘remand fostering.’ The Social Exclusion Unit now instantiates the Relational Justice maxim that a society that promotes inclusion and relationships to the maximum has the best chance of reducing crime to the minimum. Even the Conservative Party has adopted the explicitly relational language of the “neighbourly society.”

In other respects, however, the relational question is seldom asked. Relational Justice began in 1991 by drawing attention to the destructive impact of imprisonment on family ties. At that time the prison population was 36,000 in England and Wales. It has now grown to 74,000, a higher proportion of the population than any other country in the European Union. The relational fallout of mass imprisonment is now greater than ever. Not only are there more prisoners than ever before but there are proportionately fewer prison visits. If relationships are central to human well-being this is a matter for acute concern. Parenting from prison is still enormously difficult due to the emotional and psychological issues involved with bringing children into a prison and the sheer distance most families have to travel. Prisoners still have little opportunity to make financial contributions to their families and are often a significant financial burden.

There is another reason why mass imprisonment is a relational disaster. Punishment should assist in the process of relational development and social maturation. Yet all too often the process of imprisonment seems designed to induce a state of arrested development. Too many prisoners face, in the devastating words of Hans Toch, “a regime of eventlessness and a life that is redundant, monotonous and stultifying.” Programmes that offer an opportunity for generativity and contributing to future generations are limited. It is certainly the case that we take away more opportunities for prisoner growth and responsibility than can be justified in the name of public safety. This is especially serious for the growing proportion of prisoners in the UK and US serving sentences of ten years or longer.

Other trends in recent years include increased centralisation (which undercuts institutions of local justice) and the rise of the “new public management” with its performance culture of targets, indicators and ‘value for money’ (which can generate a ‘blame-shifting’ culture and lack of trust). There are merits in both centralisation and managerialism but the reaction against them demonstrates, once again, the need to ask the relational question.

Relational Justice should be but one expression of relationality in the wider social order. A major concern in seeking to implement Relational Justice is the growth of non-relational trends in society. New communications technologies may assist us all in keeping in touch with a wider set of acquaintances but arguably detract from the development of closer, deeper relationships. Architecture and town planning focus on individual rights and freedoms rather than building community. Cultural changes such as the shift away from shared meals undermine household cohesion. Despite the best efforts of public policy to combat social exclusion, evidence of public participation in public life – such as voting in elections – continues to decline to levels dangerously low for the legitimisation of democracy.

In the vocabulary of ‘Relationism’, we need a policy framework that includes also Relational Education, Relational Healthcare, Relational Finance, Relational Immigration and Relational Cities. The strength of the Relational approach, of asking the Relational question, is precisely its ability not just to aid diagnosis but to pinpoint ways to intervene to build the kind of families and communities which will sustain the social order in years to come.

In what ways is this ‘relational’ approach different from the goals and methods of restorative justice, which has become part of our familiar vocabulary? Ironically, asking the relational question has become increasingly necessary with the rise of Restorative Justice. The movement of restorative thinking from the margins of political thought to an explicit plank of criminal justice policy has been a remarkable development. Yet this does not mean that the time has come for relational thinking to take a back seat. Although Restorative and Relational Justice share much in common, especially at the level of policies, there are important differences in their theoretical foundations.

This is because restorative justice, concerned as it is with the restoration of prior social relationships in a community, is necessarily relational. Anthony Bottoms suggests that a commitment to ‘restoring’ victims, offenders or communities means thinking about the social mechanisms that can bring this about and this is likely to depend upon the nature of the relationships involved. ‘Reconciliation’ may be more likely to succeed among ‘thick’ social relationships (e.g. family members) where relationships must necessarily continue as opposed to ‘thin’ relationships (e.g. members of a social club) where there is less incentive. Identifying the kinds of cases for which we might wish to develop Restorative Justice-type approaches and the kinds of cases where this might not be appropriate means asking the relational question.

Restorative Justice as a framework for the criminal justice system is most unlikely to be able to stand on its own in the wider policy arena because it relies on the strength of family and community relations being in place to support it. If family and community are highly dysfunctional, as in many urban areas in Britain today, the grassroots mechanisms required to achieve effective mediation, and to restore relationships broken by crime, will be insufficiently robust to sustain the pressure put upon them. Thus, there needs to be a simultaneous approach to strengthen family and involve community in the areas of education, health, neighbourhood policy and the work of social services. The whole public policy framework needs to be reviewed from a relational perspective.

A final reason for Relational Justice is the vulnerability of the gains made over the past two decades. The good intentions and enthusiasm of many politicians, policy-makers and practitioners are at risk at risk of being thwarted by competing and contradictory values running through criminal justice and social policy. A countervailing approach to the ‘culture of control’ is needed if relational practices are to have a more than marginal effect. Positive proposals for dealing with re-settlement and re-offending demand a relational approach if they are to have any chance of success. There is a real danger, at this point, of using what a relational approach might suggest but without the underpinning philosophy or understanding. The worst is the corruption of the best. We still need to ask the relational question – because justice cannot prevail without it.

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