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Making restorative justice work for women who have offended

This study addresses a major gap in research and knowledge regarding female offenders’ experiences of, and access to, restorative justice. The research was funded by Barrow Cadbury Trust and conducted with the support of the Restorative Justice Council (RJC), in association with Coventry University.

Restorative justice is about direct communication between a victim and their offender, typically through a face to face conference. It holds offenders to account for what they have done, helps them to take responsibility and make amends, and also gives victims the chance to explain the real impact of the crime. While restorative justice has experienced a surge in both theory and practice of late, there remains “[a] woeful lack of evidence regarding female offenders in restorative justice conferences” (Miles, 2013: 8). The vast majority of evidence around restorative justice is gender-blind (Cook, 2006), and/or uses an all-male sample. This is despite a significant and growing evidence base showing that women involved in criminal justice have different offending patterns and come into the system with different backgrounds (Elis, 2005). In view of this, recent years have seen a mounting recognition in both policy and practice of the value of gender-sensitive approaches when working with women in criminal justice. This study critically questioned whether restorative justice is lagging behind other areas for criminal justice service provision in this area.

The extremely limited literature that exists suggests that very low numbers of female offender cases go through to conference, and that there is a perception in the field that women who have committed an offence are more reluctant to engage in restorative justice (Miles, 2013). The reasons behind this remain unclear, though it is not wholly unlikely to be related to the particular nature and circumstances of female offending. Moreover, there are tentative suggestions in the literature that restorative justice may have a stronger effect on women who offend, especially those convicted of violent offences (Strang, 2015; Sherman et al, 2006). Again, the reasons behind these suggestions remain unclear, though theories include higher levels of empathy and a particular female ‘ethics of care’, positive impacts on mental health and new opportunities for engagement with services and positive networks. In contrast, some gendered risks have also been highlighted in the limited literature, including that restorative justice, if not well delivered, may exacerbate mental health problems, linked to particular experiences of shame, guilt, and a higher prevalence of vulnerability, trauma and self-harm.