Why do we do what we do, what is the impact of our work and how do we assess our work? These are questions that are not peripheral but lie at the heart of what we do.

In this piece we will offer some context and give an account of the international conference Measuring, researching, narrating: discussing the (social) impact of restorative justice that was organised on 5 November 2021 by the Research Committee of the European Forum for Restorative Justice. The conference aimed to engage the restorative community in collective, critical and productive discussions around themes of the social impact and the evaluation of restorative justice. The topics of social impact and evaluation had been and continue to be central on the agenda of both the restorative movement and of the EFRJ for decades, as it should be in every movement and every reflexive organisation.

This article describes the framework in which the themes of the previous articles have been developed: we have read a lot about the four areas of interest covered during the conference — and beyond! — through the contributions of some of those researchers and practitioners in the field of restorative justice who dedicated their work to evaluating restorative justice programmes, fostering restorative justice cultures, practices and policies and assessing the social impact of restorative justice practices and narrating its impact.

The application of restorative justice … within and outside the criminal justice system raises important questions around its effectiveness and its impact for its main stakeholders.

The popularity and application of restorative justice has grown immensely in the last decades, both within the criminal justice system as a response to crime, and within our societies and institutions as a response to social harms, wrongs and conflicts. The application of restorative justice — often rendered as restorative justice services, restorative practices, restorative processes or restorative approaches — within and outside the criminal justice system raises important questions around its effectiveness and its impact for its main stakeholders. The increasing implementation and delivery of restorative justice also raises questions about the impact on the transformation of the criminal justice system as a whole, as well as its social impact on our societies, cities and institutions. Therefore, there is a growing need to discuss not only the meaning of social impact but also the repertoire of tools that will help the restorative justice community to identify, analyse and manage the consequences of ongoing and/or proposed restorative actions. By doing so, we hope to be able better to showcase the value of our work as well as identify challenges, sustain the legacy of our actions and build more meaningful relationships with decision makers.

As a Research Committee, we thought we were well-placed to organise an international event where we could focus conceptually on these questions, while at the same time support the EFRJ in its reflexive process about its own impact as an organisation. We conceived this day around four major sub-topics:

  1. Efficiency and evaluation of restorative justice programmes;
  2. The role of international organisations in popularising and fostering restorative justice cultures, practices, and policies;
  3. From evaluation towards the social impact of restorative justice; and
  4. Narrating the impact of restorative justice.

In what follows, we will explain the rationale for each of the sub-topics, the questions that were discussed and the people we decided to invite.

The first session focused on a more ‘classic’ topic within the restorative justice literature: evaluation. In this session,

  1. we wanted to get an overview of the types of evaluation-oriented research designs and methods that are used for evaluating restorative programmes and that are preferred by different actors, policy makers and practitioners (qualitative/quantitative/experimental/critical) and their benefits and pitfalls;
  2. we were also interested in understanding better whether there is a relationship between the evaluation method and the types of crime or harms researched, such as, sexual violence or hate crime, and the understanding of restorative justice that is prevalent in certain research, for example, process vs outcome;
  3. we wanted to understand how the indicators and criteria of evaluation, such as recidivism, satisfaction, cost-effectiveness, restoration and transformation, are decided, whether they differ when seen from a policy maker’s and from a restorative justice point of view;
  4. finally, we wanted to see whether there are examples of co-production of evaluation processes and methods between researchers and practitioners.

We invited two speakers whom we thought had very interesting insights to give on this subject. First of all, we invited Prof. Joanna Shapland, who can be considered an authority on the topic of evaluation, given her multiple research projects and writing on the subject. Secondly, we invited Prof. Kelly Richards for her innovative and consistent evaluation approaches in the application of restorative justice in cases of sexual violence.

The second session delved into understanding the role of international organisations and institutions, such as the EU, UN or CoE, in fostering restorative justice cultures, practices and policies, and the ways in which we can assess that. We were also interested in understanding which types of cooperation the EFRJ can foster in order to support restorative aims, for example, with other European or international organisations such as the Confederation of European Probation, Victim Support Europe, Penal Reform International, or with international restorative justice sister organisations such as the National Association for Community and Restorative Justice, the Asia Pacific Forum for Restorative Justice, etc.

Finally, we wanted to discuss the relationship and affinity of the restorative justice movement with other ‘social movements,’ such as the Environmental Justice Movement, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo Movement, etc. We invited as speakers for this session, Dr Jamie Lee from the UN, for her key position and knowledge as a policy maker, and Prof. Gerry Johnstone, who has written extensively on restorative justice as a social movement.

The third session moved beyond the ‘classic’ topic of evaluation towards social impact. We had several aims for this session.

  1. We wanted to see which possible ways there are through which we can assess the social impact of restorative justice application in society and social institutions, for example, initiatives such as restorative cities, restorative schools and restorative workplaces.
  2. We wanted to understand and develop better ways of differentiating between the scale of impact at the micro level on interpersonal relationships and neighbourhoods, at the meso level on institutions and at the macro level on societal transformations and ways of assessing the effect of the micro interventions on the meso or macro levels of transformation.
  3. Finally, we were looking for a better understanding of possible ways of researching co-operation and partnerships and ways of quantifying or qualifying the impact of social interventions.

To achieve some of these aims, we invited Dr Cristina Vasilescu, with her valuable experience and knowledge on measuring the social impact of social interventions, and Prof. Jennifer Llewellyn, a leading voice and scholar in the restorative movement who has always pushed the boundaries of the impact of restorative justice from the scale of criminal justice to social institutions, and all the way to transitional contexts.

Our final and more creative session aimed at focusing on how we best narrate the impact of restorative justice. More specifically, the session explored:

  1. best examples of communicating research results to policy makers, to specific target groups, to society at large;
  2. potential collaborations between researchers, artists, practitioners and, journalists, to increase the potential of narrating the social impact of restorative justice;
  3. the role of the arts in increasing social impact;
  4. ways to communicate restorative justice better to the public.

We invited for this session two leaders in the restorative justice movement who have been at the avant-guard in their role of communicating the power of restorative justice: Prof. Lindsey Pointer, who maintains a website on games and activities for understanding restorative practices, has organised an international competition on images of restorative justice, and written a children’s book on the topic, and Dr Lucy Jaffe, who leads a world-wide known organisation, Why me?, which has significantly contributed to increasing awareness and access to restorative justice, including their pioneering project on improving the access to restorative justice services in the United Kingdom for those who speak English as an additional language.

Brunilda Pali is the Vice-Chair of the European Forum for Restorative Justice. She is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Criminology, KU Leuven. 
Contact: brunilda.pali@law.kuleuven.be

Anna Matczak is a Lecturer in Comparative Criminology at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.