This is a guest post from the Restorative Justice Council who launched a new research report “making restorative justice work for women who have offended” last week.
Women and restorative justice
The Restorative Justice Council (RJC) has released new research on the use of restorative justice with female offenders. This research contributes to addressing a gap in the research around restorative justice by exploring the issue of gender. Based on the research, the RJC has also produced a practitioner guide for RJ work with women offenders.
The background to the research
Restorative justice is an intervention with clear and well-established benefits for both victims and offenders. However relatively little research has been done which looks at how its use is affected by gender. Most research done into restorative justice is gender blind, uses an all-male sample, or both. Current research on gender in restorative justice, such as it is, focuses on female victims rather than female offenders – for instance the recent interest in its use for domestic or sexual violence.
This is particularly concerning given that it is now widely recognised that female offending requires a specific and gender-sensitive response. Research shows that women who offend are more likely than men to misuse drugs or alcohol, to have low self-esteem, to have experienced trauma and abuse, and to be a victim first and an offender second. Reasons behind offending are also different, with women’s offending more likely to be related to their relationships and partner coercion. How these factors affect restorative justice is, however, poorly understood.
In order to address this, the RJC, with funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, carried out a short research study exploring female offenders’ access to and experiences of restorative justice. It involved interviews with restorative justice practitioners who have experience of working with female offenders and with women who have themselves gone through a restorative justice process.
What the research found
The majority of female offenders who were interviewed had committed acquisitive crime or fraud, although two had committed more serious offences. The women had complex needs and circumstances, including living with trauma and abuse. They did not, however, view these as an excuse for their offending behaviour.
Before taking part, most of the women had not heard of restorative justice and were initially quite uncertain about participation. Taking part was not a decision they took lightly. Most found the pre-conference experience nerve-wracking, leading to panic attacks in some cases. All of the women found the conferences to be highly emotional and stressful events. While some praised the level of preparation, others reported that they had not been prepared properly and that they had a limited understanding of what would be involved.
Although the women who had participated in restorative justice reported that the conferences were emotionally draining, in most cases they said that they helped with the alleviation of guilt. Most felt well supported after the conference, but some did not receive adequate support or follow up. A small number were engaged with, and gaining good support from, women’s centres. All of them said that they would recommend restorative justice to others.
Many of the key themes that emerged from the interviews with female offenders were echoed by practitioners.
- Most barriers to participation were common obstacles such as inconsistent provision and low levels of public awareness, which affect both male and female offenders. There may, however, be missed opportunities for female offenders specifically, because they are more likely to commit crimes without a direct personal victim, making them a lower priority for many services and potentially more challenging to bring to conference.
- When they do take part, practitioners reported that female offenders’ participation in the restorative justice process was typically more heartfelt than men’s. Women were seen as better communicators and as having higher levels of emotional intelligence and empathy, which can make restorative justice particularly effective.
- However, preparation work with female offenders was seen by practitioners as being more demanding, due to the complex needs of the women involved. Some practitioners felt that this complexity could be a barrier to engagement. Practitioners also felt that female offenders are more likely to experience shame and guilt, which needs to be carefully managed. Many female offenders also have mental health issues, which need to be recognised in managing the process effectively and safely.
- None of the practitioners had, however, been trained specifically in how to work with women. The study also echoed the findings of previous research in concluding that there is not currently a consistent approach to gender-specific issues in the delivery of restorative justice.
Implications for future practice
The report identified some significant weaknesses in the current provision of restorative justice to female offenders. To tackle this, strategic and frontline work both need to be improved.
To improve take-up, more needs to be done to raise awareness and educate potential participants about restorative justice. Women who have committed an offence should also be offered restorative justice at the earliest possible point in the criminal justice process, although practitioners also need to recognise that it may then be some time before they are ready to participate. Where funding for restorative justice is insecure, services need to ensure that this does not mean that the women taking part do not get ongoing support.
Partnership working also needs to be improved at a strategic level. Referral pathways need to be developed to ensure that practitioners are able to refer women with complex needs to appropriate mainstream or specialist services, including women’s centres that have expertise in providing support to women in the criminal justice system.
There are also improvements to frontline working to be made. Female offenders should, where possible, be offered the opportunity to work with a female practitioner. Practitioners should also be aware of the higher likelihood of complex needs in female offender cases, as well as the importance of relationship building and the likelihood of emotional distress following participation.
Having a good preparation process and a well organised conference is absolutely essential. Practitioners must be supportive and properly explain the process, ensuring that the participants know exactly what to expect and who will be in the room. The conference must be held in a neutral location and there must be a good balance of representation on both sides. Support for vulnerable participants with complex needs should also be improved and practitioners must ensure that women receive the right level of follow-up post-conference.
The RJC has released guidance, based on the research, on best practice for working with female offenders. By using this guidance, practitioners can be sure that they are providing an effective and high quality service to women who offend, reducing their reoffending and helping them move on with their lives.
The report and guidance are available at https://www.restorativejustice.org.uk/news/rjc-publishes-new-research-making-restorative-justice-work-female-offenders.