@ Photo Gianni Polinas, Work of Maria Lai (Cucire e Ricucire, 2009).

After more than 10 years of working on various aspects of restorative justice, I am embarking on a new and exciting research journey. The Research Foundation-Flanders (FWO) has granted me a 3 years research grant to continue working on a project that explores in-depth the shaping of restorative justice in European penal systems and policies.

There are many reasons why I find this theme interesting. Currently criminology is trying to come to terms with coexisting different tendencies of punishment such as the so-called ‘punitive turn’ characterised by the rise of imprisonment and with the proliferation of so-called alternative social control agencies and approaches dealing with crime, but also with what O’Malley (1999) has called the ‘volatile and contradictory nature of these responses’. The bewildering and contradictory variety has also been seen both as a sign and as a cause of penal dystopias, when our abilities to imagine alternatives are seriously hampered (Cohen 1988, Zedner 2002, Young 1992).

One way to make sense of the existing contradictions has been the notion of ‘bifurcation’, which is based on the idea that more punitive and custodial sanctions are used for a particular type of offenders and offences while alternative and noncustodial sanctions – among which it is argued lies restorative justice – are used for another type. Restorative justice in particular is said to play a bifurcation function in dealing with minor crimes and low-risk, first-time, and ‘deserving’ offenders in a non-threatening symbiosis with more punitive sanctions (see Brown and Pratt 2000, Pratt and Erikson 2013, Aebi et al. 2015, Wood 2015).

Although the notion of bifurcation appears intuitive, rather than talking about offenses, offenders, or penal sanctions as if they could be divided into two distinct types, my proposed research moves beyond theories of bifurcation with coercive and exclusionary penal sanctions on the one side and inclusive, restorative, community-based sanctions on the other, towards a mode of analysis that investigates complex rationalities and mechanisms that coexist in penal systems (Pavlich, 2000), by using restorative justice as a case study. The identification of such mechanisms and rationalities is important not only to understand the shaping of restorative justice within penal systems and policies, but also to shed light on its future development.

Currently restorative justice in Europe is not only used as a means of diversion for minor offences, but also for very ‘serious’ and different offences such as sexual violence, corporate crimes, and terrorism, appearing therefore to be sifted (used and rationalised) through the penal systems and policies in particular and heterogeneous ways, which need to be better understood. At the same time the shaping of restorative justice in European penal and policies is highly interdependent on internal sifting mechanisms and rationalities of restorative justice’s discourses and practices, such as the limits and possibilities it sets for itself. The analogy of sifting is used here to allude especially to the importance of the notion of ‘appropriateness’ (or eligibility, compatibility) in the shaping of restorative justice, but also notions like safeguards, principles, conditions, etc. The main objectives of my research will therefore be to understand better the mechanisms and rationalities that shape restorative justice within European penal systems and penal policies, and eventually rethink the future development of restorative justice in relation to penal systems and policies in light of the research.

Arguably restorative justice remains today the main utopia of challenging current forms of penality, manifested in a desire to reform penal systems in their inner structures, in favour of practices that are more adequate to the ideals and principles of democracies and human rights, in other words, to ‘civilise criminal justice’ (Cornwell et al. 2013, Walgrave, Aertsen, & Vanfraechem 2016). The diagnosis of current penal dystopias, especially the rise of punitiveness, stands in stark contradiction to the restorative utopia viewed as a regulatory pyramid which assigns at the bottom ample space for restorative regulation and at the top a very reduced possibility for detention as ultima ratio, imagining a ‘future where punishment is marginalised’ (Braithwaite 2002, Walgrave 2008). So how to reconcile the reality with the dream? But first of all what is the reality and what is the dream?


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Braithwaite, J. (2002). Restorative justice and responsive regulation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brown, M., & Pratt, J. (eds.) (2000). Dangerous offenders: Punishment and social order. London: Routledge.
Cohen, S. (1988). Against criminology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
Cornwell, D., Blad, J. & Wright, M. (eds.) (2013) Civilising criminal justice: An international restorative agenda for penal reform. Hook, Hampshire: Waterside Press.
O’Malley, P. (1999). Volatile and contradictory punishment. Theoretical Criminology 3 (2): 175-196.
Pavlich, G. (2000). Forget crime: Accusation, Governance, and Criminology. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 33(2): 136-152.
Pratt, J., & Eriksson, A. (2013). Contrasts in punishment: An explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism. London: Routledge.
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Young, P. (1992). The importance of utopias in criminological thinking. Br J Criminol 32 (4): 423-437.
Zedner, L. (2002). Dangers of dystopia in penal theory. Oxford J Legal Studies 22 (2): 341:366.