Restorative Justice Is Albania's Compass and Not Its Map
By By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published November 16, 2015

"Restorative justice is not a map, but the principles of justice can be seen as a compass that shows direction. At least, Restorative Justice is an invitation to dialogue and exploration." Thus is concluded in the research titled "The Little Book of Restorative Justice", by Howard Zehr regarded as one of the founders of this movement. In one of the comments made for this initiative, it is among other things considered as an effort for justice and peace.

According to Howard, the Restorative Justice Movement began as an effort to re-think the needs originated by crime and its implied roles. The process of Restorative Justice meets the needs of the victim, the offender and the community, which cannot be achieved through the criminal justice system.

We mentioned Mr. Howard since he is one of the figures of this field who has been referred to by authors of a study conducted in the framework of the two-year project "Institutional Development of Restorative Justice and the Mediation Between Victim and Offender for Minors in Albania" implemented by Save the Children and the foundation "Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation of Disputes", with the support of the European Union in Albania and Save the Children.

Although in its first steps compared with many other countries, especially Western ones, this is a relatively new initiative and we might say that research done within a two-year time frame highlights arguments on the application of Restorative Justice in Albania and most importantly what has been achieved in this field in this relatively short time.

Mediation is an alternative of dispute resolution by agreement, by consent and forgiveness. If the parties are not satisfied with the effects of mediation, they can turn to other dispute resolution alternatives, such as court, arbitration, administrative appeal etc, as it happens in all countries that apply it. So everything is inserted into the legal track and according to the law provided by the Albanian justice for mediation, mediation in criminal matters applies to disputes considered by the court at the request of the accuser or the appeal of the accuser, under Articles 59 and 284 of the Criminal Procedure, and in any case when a special law allows it.

The authors of the study "Institutional Development of Restorative Justice and the Mediation Between Victim and Offender for Minors in Albania" argue that mediation and Restorative Justice are inextricably linked to each other because they are part of the same process. Restorative Justice should aim at the punishment of the accused to play a role in re-education and rehabilitation, to turn the accused after the sentence into a civilized community member who will not return to crime and prison. Restorative Justice puts the victim as well as the offender under the impact of problem solving, focusing on improving the relationship between material and psychological losses.

The focus of the study are minors and young people aged 14-18 and 19-21 years, especially from vulnerable groups in detention, from the Roma community, as well as minors and youth in schools which were included in the program of mediation between peers.

"This age group was chosen not only because this category is part of Restorative Justice programs but also because the intervention of the Restorative Justice program as an education process of this age group is expected to be more productive," argued Albanians researchers in their work.

The study was conducted in Tirana, Vlora, Durres, Korca, Elbasan, Shkodra and Lezha. They selected these cities not only because they are geographically representing Albania, but also because in these cities the mediation service and Restorative Justice programs  are provided over a significant period of time, thus creating a sociologically convenient "ground" for exploring the issue in question.

Some facts regarding the study and survey data

They established a total of 6 focus groups and held interviews with 80 specialists of the above mentioned fields. In the surveying process 1044 minors and young people took part. Sample selection was random and partly deliberate. Juveniles and young people at schools were selected from schools with students with heterogeneous sub-cultural backgrounds from the most challenging classes according to the teachers´ indications.

The three case studies described in this research were carefully selected from cases treated during the program of conflict resolution through classic mediation, mediation between victim and offender and the group conference, a program offered by the Foundation "Conflict Resolution and Dispute Reconciliation" in the year 2014 onwards. They describe conflicts between minors and young people aged 14-21, and how these conflicts are managed through the above-mentioned program.

The survey data showed that generally the involvement of girls in conflicts or deviant behavior is lower compared to that of boys. About 274 girls have positively responded to the question "are you conflicted or involved in deviant behavior?" While 348 young boys who admitted to be conflicted or be involved in deviant behavior.

Recidivists are a relatively small group within the overall objective of the respondents in this study, but their specific weight within the group of young people who are under indictment or convicted is not small (34 of 148 or 32.9 percent) . It is noted that the city has the highest percentage of recidivists. For nearly 55.8 percent (19 minors and 34 young people) reported living in the city; 20.5 percent of recidivists (7 minors and 34 young people) reported living in areas labeled as peripheral, while in the countryside this percentage is only 17.6 percent (6 minors and 34 young people).

These reports tell us that the risk of repeatedly falling into deviant behavior is largest in the urban areas, where family ties and the influence of tight social circles have started to fade away and the opportunities to integrate in the community can be limited.

The relationship between the education level and repetition of the offense seems straightforward. In the totality of the recidivist respondents, 10 of them have primary education, 16 have secondary education and 4 of them have no education (while 4 other people have not reported any data for that matter).

Were respondents informed of Restorative Justice? What did the research show?

In general, this study revealed several findings which we mentioned above through the facts and findings, but one of the most important in my opinion is that the study showed that 652 out of 1,037 respondents claimed to be informed of Restorative Justice, whereas only 28.4 percent of them are involved and have benefited from this program. It is interesting that among juveniles and young people who are in the process of trial and accused of committing criminal offense, 59.5 per cent are informed on mediation and Restorative Justice and 25 percent of these minors and young people who are in the process of trial have benefited from this program.

Most of the minors who said they had benefited from the service of mediation and the Restorative Justice program are members of the Roma community (40 percent of respondents from the Roma community) and minors and young people in custody and convicted (35.1 per cent of children and young people in custody and convicted), a category which, among others, had the attention of Restorative Justice programs and mediation.

Data disaggregated according to three categories of respondents, revealed that minors and young people in custody and convicted (48.5 percent), and those in school (49.5 percent) believe that a family member represents the most appropriate person to help them in case of conflict, while respondents from the Roma community in a majority of cases (33.7 percent) trust a professional and impartial broker.

The survey also indicated that whether or not they benefited from these programs, minors and young people surveyed (85 percent) were willing to accept the process of conflict resolution through mediation and wished to be included in the Restorative Justice program to solve their conflicts. Also, an equally important part of the survey participants (87 percent or 856 respondents) stated that they would be willing to recommend the service of mediation and Restorative Justice program to friends and their relatives.

How do minors assess Restorative Justice after the research?

The research revealed that there is a low level of awareness among children and young people related to the positive effects of restorative dialogue in reducing the possibility to be involved in conflicts and criminal offenses and prevent recidivism, which still remains a challenge. About 52.7 percent of respondents claim they do not know whether the involvement in the process of mediation and restorative justice program would have avoided criminal misdemeanor.

On the other hand, direct interviews and focus groups with professionals in the field revealed other facts in the study. One conclusion drawn is that the minors or young people involved in heavier conflicting situations such as criminal offenses, come mainly from socially marginalized groups, poor classes or from families with lower socio-economic status than the rest of minors and young people who participated in the research. More than by survey process, the conclusion is drawn by the in-depth interviews with experts to address minors and youth confronting the law.

Part of the respondents was informed on Restorative Justice and mediation and was trained for that purpose. They were even included as collaborators in providing the Restorative Justice program. There were some young professionals who were not informed and considered that information in this field should be increased.

Respondents estimate that Restorative Justice programs reduce the chance of recidivism in minors. Restorative Justice is considered by respondents as an alternative that should be recognized and used more often especially for minors confronting the law, but besides that it prevents conflict escalation, normalization of human relations, saving time and cost etc.

What is the role of the school and the community in this area?

Even schools were regarded by respondents as an important institution for the development of the mediation process, because this option increases the chances of preventing the problem. Respondents reported several cases where schools have requested support from the program to train people to resolve conflicts without the need to refer such cases to the police.

Respondents also report that the need of community participation in restorative interventions is of primary importance. They point out that currently the involvement of society is lacking in most cases. Social awareness is considered crucial. Identifying internal protective factors of minors helps an easier implementation of Restorative Justice. Some protective factors identified and reported by respondents are: the motivation to do well in school, honesty, responsibility, inter-personal skills, ability to solve conflicts, positive insights for the future.

The study also revealed that knowledge of the external protective factors is essential for the implementation of Restorative Justice to minors and young people confronting the law. According to respondents these factors are also related to an important element that has to do with the involvement of the community and other external factors that create fertile ground for the implementation of Restorative Justice.

Respondents revealed that the right intervention for minors who have committed their first offense is to avoid the criminal justice system and receive support by rehabilitation programs and Restorative Justice.

The qualitative study data revealed that the combination of criminal policy with other policies in the field of education, supporting and strengthening the family, mental health, vocational training and employment of young people are seen as the most appropriate and effective interventions to reduce the recidivism of minors. The majority of respondents reported lack of services provided after minors end up their sentences and leave the institution.

It is reported a low level of cooperation and commitment by the various stakeholders to address the needs of minors. In the chain of services provided to minors, not all service providers contribute well to address their needs. Respondents assert that Restorative Justice system meets some basic needs of minors and young people, offenders, among which the most important is to encourage the community life.

Generally respondents in all the above mentioned institutions evaluate positively the service of mediation and the involvement of minors in the programs Restorative Justice, considering them not only practical solutions of issues and concrete conflicts outside the judicial route, but above all as an educational process, the consequences of which should be seen in a long-term perspective and not through everyday lenses.

Restorative Justice and Its 'Actors'

When talking about actors who can directly affect the implementation of Restorative Justice, the list is quite extensive, but can become a grouping into four main categories: 1) State institutions of the justice system and education; 2) civil society organizations; 3) media; 4) international organizations. What general recommendations are made by the research for each of these stakeholder groups?

The delivery of the Restorative Justice service, the victim-offender mediation and the group meeting (community conferencing) for minors in confronting the law and beyond, requires standardization of criminal law for minors. Professionals in the field of minor and social justice recommended sweeping changes to the legislation on minors aiming to increasing access of minors to justice. This would require the harmonization of the criminal law which addresses issues of deviation / referral of conflict cases of criminal justice institutions and treatment through alternative resolution services such as mediation and Restorative Justice.

It needs to be invested more in training and capacity building of professionals who deal with criminal conflict management mainly focused on minors but not only as well on employees and police officers, prosecutors, judges, employees of detention centers and prisons, probation workers and specialists etc.

There need to be developed educational programs with preventive nature in pre-university educational institutions for antisocial and conflicting behavior during school time. Such programs focusing on restorative dialogue and mediation between peers as part of extracurricular and curricular activities would have a direct impact on improving the conflicting situation and preventing violence in schools.

There need to be created necessary mechanisms of institutional cooperation to increase the engagement of different actors in the administrative system of justice and social system (police, prosecution, judiciary and social services system) to address the needs of minors, particularly those who engage in conflicting situations and criminal activities. The offering of victim-offender mediation and the Restorative Justice program in general should constitute an important link in the cooperative process.

Likewise, civil society organizations must contribute more to raise the level of information, awareness and education of stakeholders and the public about alternative forms of dispute resolution especially involving minors. Attention in this process should be paid to promoting positive values ??of the Restorative Justice and the victim-offender mediation, as well as group meetings in relation to other forms of criminal punishment for minors.

More work is needed to achieve cooperation and creating new synergies between civil society actors who focus their work on minors and young people confronting the law and aiming to practice Restorative Justice and mediation in institutional interactions and beyond.

Given that the mediation service cannot be provided as part of the state structures because of the independence and impartiality of the posts, it is recommended that civil society organizations having as their work scope programs of mediation and Restorative Justice support the provision of this free service for the poor and for minors.

Restorative Justice programs should not only be focused in the age category of 14-21, but also that of 12-14 years which escape criminal justice but constitute a contingent to be included in the category of deviant young people in the near future. Also the development of programs of early prevention and early treatment of criminal behavior is of primary importance for reducing the level of deviant behavior among youth and minors in the Albanian context, as well as for reducing the level of recidivism in this category. Through various programs civil society organizations need to create bridges of cooperation in order to strengthen the cooperation between family, school and community. Provision of restorative justice programs would have a special significance for achieving this goal.

But then ...

The provision of reintegrating support services for minors even after the sentence is of primary importance. It is recommended that the cooperation of civil society organizations with state structures and business would increase minors´ contact with the law as well as the effects of Restorative Justice and mediation and their variety and quality. Including programs focused on Restorative Justice for the category of minors and young people is of primary importance.

The role of the media in the implementation of Restorative Justice

The level of information about Restorative Justice and mediation to the general public is of primary importance. The media, including the electronic and the written one can and should play a more important role in adding information to directly impact the growth of public awareness about the values ??of Restorative Justice. This can be done concretely by special delivery of television programs, newspaper columns, etc. that focus on the promotion of Restorative Justice. It would also be interesting to publish concrete cases, of course with stakeholders´ consent, because such things sometimes have greater effect than theoretical writings.

Personally I do not rule out the role of investigative journalism which must be said is in its first steps in Albania, and can be noted that the social and financial costs of the solution through mediation is cheaper than the criminal process and even more than imprisonment.

International Organizations: Main 'allies' in implementing Restorative Justice

International organizations are invited to continue support Restorative Justice programs in Albania. "As mentioned above, there are still many challenges to overcome for the learning and mastery of the principles of Restorative Justice from the Albanian society," stated the researchers of this project.

International transmission of positive experiences and successful models developed by the companies for the implementation of Restorative Justice by international organizations is a very important element that helps the successful implementation of Restorative Justice in Albania.

So also referring to international experience in this field I can say that the research has aimed to highlight the practices of Restorative Justice and it will cause reduction of criminal acts of different sizes, especially for group age that the study refers to. A survey by the Conciliatory Services of Real Estate entitled "Repairing the damage caused by conflict" taking the example of New Zealand states that "The needs of victims should be addressed, and those associated with them must get involved in the process. This interaction is necessary, vital and Restorative Justice is an added value with some elements of the Albanian character.

 Ultimately, as Howard says, Restorative Justice is the compass, not the map...of Albania in our case.

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