A Conversation with Lode Walgrave[i]

BP. Lode, I arrived in Leuven after your retirement, so I had initially missed out on that vital personal contact that is necessary for the close transmission of ideas but also for ways of being. For a few years, you were for me the ‘great intellectual’ in the abstract, whose work one should read, and I did read it, but I was not aware at that time of your character, which is as important in fact for the work we do. Even your name sounded majestic. Somehow in Italian “Lode” means praise and the end of your surname “Grave” means serious. So you can imagine my initial intimidation, someone with that reputation and with that name! Then l gathered courage, especially because I really liked your work, and asked you to become my PhD co-supervisor. I found out that behind the ‘great intellectual’ in the abstract, there is in fact a very simple and very present one. In the years that followed, I appreciated a lot your intellectual passion and availability. Let’s put it this way: You were -and still are- always there to discuss ideas and to support their birth and development. Often, we find ourselves in heated discussions, to the amusement of others around us, but that’s because we get very passionate about our work. In particular, where do you think your passion for theory, a passion we share in fact, has come from?

LW. This a difficult question to begin with, Bruna, which needs some introspection. For me, passion, meaning the persevering commitment to “a cause”, is closely linked to an awareness of responsibility. I have witnessed this from my childhood. My father was a primary school teacher in a village and he saw his job as a mission. He received at home pupils in trouble to coach them individually, he received discouraged parents to motivate them. He volunteered in numerous initiatives in the village community. My mother supported him very much in this. Moreover, I have been lucky to have teachers and professors who (most of them) did not fulfil a nine-to-five job, but who were very much aware of their function in a social context. Probably these examples have imprinted on me.

Professors are privileged and enjoy a fantastic position. They have a wide margin of free thinking and speech, while their income is reasonable and assured. But such position entails responsibilities. Why does society offer such privileges to a reduced number of citizens? Because it expects some benefits from free thinking and free speech. In my view, the role of an academic is not to become a mere technical executor of the will of the authorities, nor is he or she to become a member of “a reservation for highly skilled maladjusted intellectuals”. An academic must be aware of his specific social responsibility, which is to inject social debates with new insights, documented by methodologically well-constructed facts. Sometimes, this will be in line with the mainstream, sometimes it will be opposed to it.

Here is where theory comes in. Theory is more, as it transcends the individual observation, but it is at the same time less, because it loses the uniqueness of this observation. If constructed well, theory offers a frame for understanding the individual observations in the past and for reflecting on what to expect in the future. Theory is an indispensable phase in the permanent action-reflection cycle in scientific research (in all conscient behaviour, in fact). But the condition is that the theory itself is well constructed, meaning advancing clear concepts, being clear on the expected relationships between the concepts.

This is probably my greatest concern about restorative justice. While Howard Zehr characterized restorative justice as “a widening river”, I am afraid that it has widely overflown its banks. Its extension towards all kinds of preventative, social, rehabilitative and other initiatives and models of intervention, is in my eyes the greatest threat to its credibility and to research. Like a Don Quixote, I am permanently fighting for more clarity, trying to bring the restorative justice river back into its banks to conceive it only as “a particular way of doing justice after the occurrence of an offence”. I am afraid that I am losing this battle. But I do nevertheless love the colleagues (even the “extenders”) and I have great appreciation for many different practices as such, even if they are -in my view- not restorative justice. But the consequence is that much of the research on so called restorative justice practices misses the point because it is unclear what in fact has been researched and because the generalizability of the conclusions towards other practices remains doubtful. Science is about producing shared knowledge, methodology is the crucial vehicle to share, and good theory is an indispensable part of the methodology. I could go on, Bruna, but maybe this is more than enough. Blame it on my passion.

BP. Oh, I blame everything on your passion. I am aware of your worry on expanding the restorative justice umbrella, and we have had often heated discussions between us on this topic. But I am afraid you might be indeed losing this battle, neither the river can be put back on its banks nor the ocean can be put into bottles. I find the reason for your concern very important nevertheless. Extending the umbrella might weaken both the position within the criminal justice system, and the ‘shared knowledge’ which might inform and therefore support this position. But I might be less optimistic than you on the power of research to influence the criminal justice system. I don’t think of this system as very rationally-minded although that is what it claims to be. We might be in that respect like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, at least when it comes to the criminal justice system, I feel I always bring you down to earth. This might be related to our different backgrounds.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Place d’Espanje, Brussels

We will go back to these questions as they are important, but for now I am interested to hear a bit more on your emphasis on theory and science as “shared knowledge” and of your transposition of the beautiful story of your father to the vocation and social responsibility of the academic. Let me play Sancho Panza again. Times are changing and I am worried that we are losing exactly these two elements. I will not take “shared knowledge” to mean “same” knowledge, but rather public or democratic knowledge. Are universities today supporting sufficiently the sharing of knowledge and a sense of social responsibility for their scientists or are they promoting egoistic, overworked, and isolated individuals?

LW. In her review of Restorative Justice, Self-Interest and Responsible Citizenship, Suzanne Karstedt has called me “a utopian realist”, and I can live with that stigma. You are right to be sceptical about the so-called rationality of the criminal justice system. Its rigidity in sticking to the punitive premise in responding to offending, despite the overwhelming evidence that such response is mainly counterproductive, is not rational at all. It clearly demonstrates that the system is based on emotion. While the judicial procedures are more or less rational, their drives are emotions. But the emotional drives of revenge or fear are not recognized. Which is very problematic because the criminal justice interventions do not resolve much of the emotional consequences of offending. This is what restorative justice tries to do: to include the emotional dimension in the response to crime, while trying to respect the rights and the just balances.

But now to your question on the role of universities in preserving the quality of sciences as producers of “shared knowledge”. I do not know if you have read John Braithwaite’s “Opportunities and dangers of capitalist criminology” in The Sparkling Discipline of Criminology? This chapter says exactly what I mean, but much better than I could ever do. John describes how institutional obligations are functioning like capitalist markets to discipline social sciences (and criminology). Criteria for appointment and promotion rely on publication scores which are dependent on mainstream thinking and methodology. Most peer reviewed journals do not encourage thinking out of the box. They prefer positivist methodology, often disqualifying the use of socio-historical, clinical or other qualitative methodologies. Moreover, sciences develop in rigid institutions, faculties (and sub faculties) which are like silos of disciplines, separate from other disciplines in other faculties (and sub faculties). Consequently, social sciences drift away from social reality, where the issues and problems are not “psychological” or “sociological”, but complex and human. Such science-in-silos is, and I quote John Braithwaite again “…boring. The work is repetitive, adding some details or nuances that do not really matter, unless for the equally boring colleagues under the glass bell of a highly specialized sub-discipline” (interview for Tijdschrift over Cultuur & Criminaliteit). Such navel-gazing science is at risk of losing contact with the real world. And the way universities are functioning nowadays is at risk of promoting such kind of science.

But I strongly believe that it is from inside the universities that the return towards a more balanced approach will come. A recent personal experience. I am currently much involved in the Emeritiforum, a club of KU Leuven-emeriti which regularly invites highly qualified speakers to introduce a debate on a social and/or scientific issue. The debates afterwards show that these “oldies” (but goldies), from different faculties, such as Medicine, Engineering, Social sciences, Psychology, Law and others, are very much aware of the social impact of their sciences. Of course, this group is probably not representative for the population of active professors at the university, but it is also not marginal. To me, it reveals, under the surface of institutional rules and criteria, a buzzing activity of an academic community reflecting on its social relevance.

That is also what happens within criminology. Many criminologists are not happy with the increasingly “embedded” criminology, which supports a predominantly defensive policy to cope with social problems such as crime, justice and (un)safety. They search instead for a more positive approaches, based on the conviction that all crime-related policy must rest upon inclusion, solidarity and equity. They look for “positive security” (Schuilenberg & van Steden) or “positive rehabilitation” (Ronel & Segel), they develop “Good Lives Models” (Ward) or explore the potentials of restorative justice and so on. They work in a university environment, but mostly in close contact with practitioners. My guess is that they would not have been able to develop these ideas and innovative practices if they did not work in universities. Universities are not doomed to suffocate the emergence of scientific knowledge to be shared with the non-scientific world. To me, they remain still the best possible environments for the emergence of paradigm-breaking approaches and for the exploration of utopian ideals (somewhere else, I have called utopia “an academic duty”), and where crucial touchstones of scientific quality can be preserved.

The risk, however, is twofold. First, that the methodological core of all scientific activity degenerates into being an imperialistic view of one methodological ideal. Second, that the particular environment of a university degrades into being a kind of reservation without contact with the “real world outside”. Watching the right balance is a continuous challenge for the universities and for the individual academics themselves. Sometimes, they fail, but mostly, they succeed.

BP. I was aware that you were stigmatised as a “utopian realist” (or “utopian utilitarian” to be precise), and I want to check immediately if you feel comfortable in the planet of restorotopias. No one is stigmatised here, only conversed with. I want to hear more about your “realist utopia” actually, especially as it relates to restorative justice. Not many are aware of the contribution you made recently together with Ivo Aertsen and Inge Vanfraechem in A Truly Golden Handbook. I think it came out in 2016, when you with about 50 other scientists engaged in some form of scholarly quest for utopia, starting from very different perspectives. It was the best celebration of 500 years of Thomas More’s Utopia, which not many people might know, but was first published here in Leuven in 1516. How did writing this piece and being part of that project make you feel? And what sort of utopia is “responding to crime through restoration”?

First print of Utopiae Insulae Figura, Thomas Morus, 1516, Leuven.

LW. Utopia can have different meanings. Sometimes, it is used as an intellectual manoeuvre to disqualify uncomfortable ideas as “unrealistic”, “not deserving any attention”. It is a sloganized rejection of a proposal which one does not like at all. Utopia can also function as a lubricant to release rusted obviousness. The emergence of restorative justice, for example, has provoked questions as why offending must be punished or whether punishment is the only way to safeguard legal rights. The utopian provocation then is an effective tool to elicit a reflection on practices that seemed to be self-evident. But utopia can also be a pathway for an exploratory expedition on theory and practice. What would happen if the social response to offending was primarily restoration oriented? Which social and societal conditions must be fulfilled to make such re-orientation possible and successful? Where are the resistances against it?

It is not by coincidence that Sisyphus was on the cover of Restorative Justice, Self-Interest and Responsible Citizenship. He is my personal hero. Why does he continue to push the rock upon a hill, knowing that he will never reach the top? The negative reason is that he fears death, which the Gods would inflict on him if he stopped. The positive reason is that, deep down, he continues to hope that one day, one moment, he will reach the top. For me, Sisyphus is a metaphor of human condition. While we know that we shall never reach the ideal democracy, we must continue to pursue it to avoid degradation into tyranny or anarchy. We shall never reach a perfectly balanced justice, but we cannot give up the ambition of reaching it, because injustice would be the rule otherwise. Objective knowledge is impossible, but science must try to transcend subjective impressions and intuitions as much as possible to make common reflection and action possible. Ideal democracy, perfectly balanced justice, objective knowledge are utopias, located at the top of the hill which we shall never reach. They are inspirational beacons.

Sisyphus, by Titian

Likewise, I understand my maximalist version of restorative justice as a utopian vision on an ideal of doing justice, located in an ideal society. We shall never reach it, but we need to keep the ideal in mind, as an orienting and inspiring model of “what is yet to come” (words of George Pavlich), and as a provocation to those who stick to the traditional punitive justice premise. The restorative justice utopia is a source of ambition and a drive for innovation. Constructing and defending such utopias is an essential mission for the academic world. This world is designed to allow “untamed thinking”, free of what is considered “feasible” or “useful” on beforehand. Academics must dare to engage in intellectual adventures, in the search for new paradigms, to explore new horizons, to plant new beacons of hope, to escape suffocating realism which easily transforms in cynicism. Academics must continue to push the rock. Yes, utopia is an academic duty.

I feel happy in restorotopias, but it is not a planet. It is an essential part of the planet on which we all are living, and which is also populated with cynical realists, unthoughtful indifferents, insolent egoists and people (the majority) who modestly try to do their best without great ambitions to change the world.

I seem to be flying high again, Bruna. I almost forgot to answer your question on how I felt writing the article with Inge Vanfraechem and Ivo Aertsen on restorative justice utopia. As always, it was a pleasant cooperation with Inge and Ivo, and the response we had to our presentation was very rewarding. But to me, this project ended in a surprise. We started to present restorative justice as a utopia. After the survey of research, I began to have doubts. Is restorative justice a utopia? Intrinsically, maximalist restorative justice, giving priority to restorative responses to offending whenever possible, appears to be feasible without negative consequences for public safety, with more satisfactory consequences for the concrete victims and with probably more constructive opportunities for the offenders’ rehabilitation. Even the public seems not to reject a reparative premise. Where is the utopia then? It is in the resistance of the very authoritative criminal justice institutions and professionals defending their powerful position, and among the politicians who do not dare to engage in profound changes of “the most dysfunctional of the major institutional accomplishments of the Enlightenment” (quoting John Braithwaite again in his interview)

BP. Speaking about change, this year is the 10th anniversary of Restorative Justice, Self-Interest and Responsible Citizenship (2008), which is in a way your Lebenswerk, and a truly monumental work, whose worth I think will be continuously rediscovered. Have your ideas changed meanwhile? How do you feel today about the book? And since I know that you are still very actively reading works of scholars in the field, mainly due to your work as an editorial team member of The International Journal of Restorative Justice, do you have the feeling that the field is theoretically advancing, or do you often have a sense of deja vu?

LW. The book Restorative Justice, Self-Interest and Responsible Citizenship presented my fundamental ideas, and they have not changed much since. When I wrote it, I enjoyed being emeritus (I still do) and lurking deadlines faded away. Taking the time for a deeper exploration was possible, including digging into literature which was unknown to me, especially in philosophy and in political sociology. I tried to construct, from socio-ethical beliefs, over theoretical concepts and empirical data a coherent vision on restorative justice as a power (not the power) in safeguarding the quality of social life.

Since the publication of the book, my belief in the necessity of a strong social-ethical ground for social sciences has strengthened. Developments in restorative justice confirm my position for an outcome-oriented maximalist approach, based on a restricted “espresso-definition”. The reception of the book was good, with two reasons for deception, though. The first is that some colleagues still confuse my maximalist version of restorative justice with a rejection of legal and judicial frame, which is of course not true. It is rather the contrary. The second concerns the continuous sloppiness in the use of the term “restorative justice”, which is, as I said before, a threat to its credibility.

Since the publication in 2008, many new publications added new material to deepen my initial positions. I have been especially sensitive to the warnings coming from the victims’ movement. Other texts have put me on track for a further exploration of the relation between restorative justice and the legal frame. Many practices document the wider applicability of restorative justice.

But I do not see groundbreaking innovations in restorative justice philosophy, or theory, be this normative or explanatory. The foundations of the restorative justice approach have been formulated during 1990s and early 2000s. Two Handbooks of Restorative Justice appeared in 2005 (Sullivan & Tifft) and in 2006 (Johnstone & Van Ness). The chapters offered a state of affairs of what was achieved in the restorative justice literature and experiences. My book presented my comprehensive vision, as my own way to take stock of the achievements.

The debates that were existing then, still persist. Why is that? Maybe, the essentials of restorative justice as a philosophical/theoretical concept are in this way laid down. I do thus not at all agree with the popular mantra that theory in restorative justice is absent. After all, penal theory and penal philosophy in recent decades have been very repetitive as well. Another hypothesis could be as follows. Once the principled ground for a new approach is available, significant further developments must result from confrontation with research, practice and among different conceptions. But the inaccurate conception of what restorative justice is (and what not) makes fruitful confrontations impossible, or at least difficult. Consequently, while the experience grows, the theoretical construction remains stuck.

BP. The contribution that the ‘Leuven school’ of criminology has given to the development of restorative justice theory and implementation worldwide is quite impressive in my opinion. Why do you think there was a fertile ground here to the restorative ideas to develop, to nourish, and to persist?

LW. Restorative justice came to Leuven via two tracks. In the late 1980s, Tony Peters, professor of the Research Group on Penology and Victimology, saw the benefits of victim-offender mediation for victims, and he took the lead in exploring its potentials both through experimentation and international networking. He was the first chair of the European Forum for Mediation (which later became the European Forum for Restorative Justice).

The second track is the Research Group on Youth Criminology. As I directed this Group, I can say a few words more about it (I have given a detailed account of this development in 2004 in the chapter “Restorative Justice in Comparison” in Lessons from International Comparative Criminology/Criminal Justice). The Belgian youth justice system was criticized at the time for being too protective, inefficient and neglecting legal safeguards. But a return to a punitive system was unthinkable. Jan Peeters, a youth court judge in Malines, seemed to open an exit out of the lurking dead end. Instead of sending juveniles who committed serious offences to a closed facility, he offered some of them the opportunity to carry out community service. Jan Peeters explicitly told them that this was meant as a compensation for what they did to community. It opened to me the perspective that not treatment, not punishment, but reparation could be the basic orientation for the youth justice system. In 1991, I participated in an international seminar in Italy, where I heard for the first time the phrase “restorative justice”. A grant by the FWO gave me the opportunity to set up an International Network for Research on Restorative Justice for Juveniles. Later, the “for juveniles” was dropped. This International Network organized conferences in Leuven (3 times), Tübingen, Fort Lauderdale, Vancouver and Canberra with the participation of almost all the leading scholars in restorative justice at that time. Both the European Forum for Restorative Justice and the International Network have set the KU Leuven on the map as a very important centre of restorative justice.

In the meantime, the small size of our country facilitated our restorative justice endeavour on the home front. We knew personally many practitioners and policy makers, many of whom were former students. Our pilot projects, our monitoring and evaluations of restorative practices were based on mutual confidence with practitioners. We could address directly many policy makers, including members of cabinets or even the relevant minister her/himself. We were invited as members of commissions and were mandated to explore the potentials of restorative approaches to crime and delinquency. Consequently, our ideas and research results influenced practice and politics, as reflected in many legal dispositions. This helped to present Belgium as one of the most restoration-oriented countries in the world.

In the beginning of the century, the reorganisation of the Leuven Institute of Criminology after our retirements (Tony in 2001, I in 2003) gave Ivo Aertsen the lead of a research line which merged the restorative justice related activities of the Youth Criminology Group with the activities of Penology and Victimology. Ivo Aertsen governed the “heritage” of Tony and me with great ability and commitment. He attracted important research funds, hosted many students from abroad and edited the International Journal for Restorative Justice, all of which certainly contributed to keep criminology at the KU Leuven as a worldwide beacon of restorative justice. I hope that this will continue after his retirement this year. This work is important both for the development of criminology at the KU Leuven, and for the continuous need to explore a more constructive way of doing justice after the occurrence of an offence. Much work is still be done, but I am not happy at all about the way things are evolving currently.

BP. I will not inquire into the reasons that make you unhappy, but I take that seriously given that you are quite an optimist by nature. Perhaps just one more comment on something I find striking about restorative justice and that became quite clear in your descriptions of all the international initiatives and networks you, Tony, and currently Ivo and his group, have been able to develop and sustain. It is a peculiar field within criminology. It is based on solidarity and a sense of community among everyone who is on this field, regardless of what their backgrounds are. Research on restorative justice therefore cannot fit into the typical ‘objective’ and distanced research that is assumed to take place on other topics. And this is because the scholars who study it, are also committed to it. In a way it is similar to what had been called at the time “peacemaking criminology”, and shares some of the commitment you can find among abolitionist groups. This supports researchers to find meaning into what they do, to feel part of a community as a said, but also on other ways it brings them under the attack of the ‘colder’ criminologists, who have set for themselves the goal of conducting research and writing about it, without any other purpose rather than furthering their own careers. What are your thoughts about this peculiar feature of restorative justice? It remains a fundamental commitment to justice at the end of the day.

LW. You are probably right that restorative justice researchers could be different from researchers you call “cold” empiricists. It may have to do with the subject of their activities. Being attracted to innovative inclusionary practices relying on mutual respect and support may require another personality disposition than focussing on variables which are reductions of reality in order to process them through statistical tests. The first one is probably more engaged in real life and is prepared to make his/her hands dirty. The second one may prefer to remain at a distance and be anxious to keep his/her hands clean.

But such oppositional characterizations are of course simplistic. And I would certainly not exclude “cold” empiricists. “Cold” can also mean “cool”. I think it was Andrew von Hirsch who wrote somewhere that restorative justice is not in need of more fervour but of more cool-headed research. I agree with him. Sustainable innovations need not only personal commitment and beliefs, and intensive interaction with the field of practice. They also need the support of good scientific research to find roots in solid ground, to explore the full potentials and to grope the limits. This also applies to action research, which is a prominent methodology in the Leuven based restorative justice research. While the activist dimension may be more present in action research, it must not overrule the scientific mission of the action researcher. Restorative justice is a social movement, with a strong dimension of activism, driven by our personal commitment and beliefs. But it is also a field of social research, in which sound methodology is crucial to keep our personal beliefs under control.  In my view, it is the only way to deepen and to improve the innovative practices we are promoting and to extend their credibility and applicability. It is precisely that which makes working in the field of restorative justice so gratifying for an academic. Our heart guides us to engage in an exploration of possible pathways to do justice better, while our brains keep us self-critical so that what we found is more credible and convincing for all.

BP. Lode, I want those to remain our last words, so I hope it’s not too rude if I close here saying thank you, and only add that it has given me great joy having this conversation with you.

[i] Lode Walgrave is emeritus professor of criminology at the Faculty of Law, in KU Leuven, where he has conducted important research in youth justice and restorative justice. A prolific writer and thinker, Lode Walgrave has made a highly significant contribution to the worldwide development of restorative justice, especially to its research and theoretical dimension, but also towards implementation and policy. For example, based on the research project on conferencing with serious juvenile offending that he and his team conducted, restorative justice conferences were legally introduced in Belgian youth justice. In 2018, besides receiving the prestigious European Society of Criminology Award, Lode wrote Restorative Justice, Self-Interest and Responsible Citizenship, a book that represents the culmination of his vision for restorative justice, and that is considered worldwide a key reading in restorative justice. He is currently in the editorial board of The International Journal of Restorative Justice and continues to remain a great supporter of younger generations of researchers in criminology.