Restorative Justice

at post-sentencing level supporting and protecting victims

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Do not enter without precautions” Reflections upon restorative justice practices in Flemish prisons

By Leo Van Garsse

Most experience in practices of mediation and Restorative Justice in Flanders is situated atthe pre-trial stage. Compared to that, practices at the post-sentencing level appear to be relatively recent and rare. However, since a couple of years the concept of ‘restorative detention’ obtained its place in academic discourse and even in political reasoning. And in official legal documents ‘restoration’ seems to be adopted as one of the main goals of punishment.

After many years of practice in victim-offender mediation at both the pre- and post-trial level, we can only partly share this upcoming enthusiasm for this link between restoration and detention.

In a brief introduction to debate further, we would like to go back to our experiences in offering mediation in the context of imprisonment. We will illustrate the ambivalent nature of this opportunity. On the one hand, it represented an access to the most serious cases, freed of all the procedural technicalities of the pre-trial stage. On the other hand, though, it appeared to be a speedway to recuperation of mediation as a new prison-routine, an instrument for promoting “morality” rather than communication and restoration. But could we just let go?

In order to escape this dilemma Flemish mediators tried to ‘politicize’ their offer, by establishing an informal “restorative fund” as a way to enable the offender to a tangible restorative initiative towards the victim. This enriched restorative offer aimed to open a way to demonstrate the capacity, not only of a particular victim and offender, but also of the broader community, to constructively provide respons-ability after a criminal event. This offer, far from claiming to be a ‘solution’ to the need for restoration, consists of constructively questioning a routine-based deprivation of freedom, as if it were - evidently and always - in the social and the victim’s interest. It aims indeed to protect the victim, not so much against the offender but rather against a risk to be abused as an easy justification for social exclusion.

The story of the “restorative fund” is promising and sobering at the same time. But it might be an interesting eye-opener on the challenging perspective of a restorative approach to criminal justice at the post-sentencing level.

Leo Van Garsse (1956) holds a Masters in Pedagogy (Catholic University of Leuven, 1981). He used to work as a social worker in prison after-care (’79 -’82) and in a half-way house for young offenders (’82-’87).

Since ’87 he is actively involved in the practice and the implementation of several applications of victim-offender mediation in Flanders (Belgium). From ’98 on, he was employed by “Suggnomè, Forum for Mediation and Restorative Justice”, an umbrella-organisation for the promotion of Restorative Justice in Flanders. As a representative of Suggnomè, Leo Van Garsse was closely involved in the preparation of the Law on victim-offender mediation, approved by Belgian Parliament on the 22nd of June of 2005.

Currently, Leo Van Garsse is connected to the Ghent University, Department of social welfare studies, where he is working on a research about the developments in the field of ‘forensic social work’ in Flanders. Since 2007, Leo Van Garsse has also been connected to the University of Leuven as a fellow-researcher at the Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC). Moreover, he is the author of several articles on victim-offender mediation and on social work in the field of criminal justice.




With the financial support from the Criminal Justice Programme of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibilty of "Schleswig-Holsteinischer Verband für soziale Strafrechtpflege; Straffälligen- und Opferhilfe e.V" and can in no way be taken to refect the views of the European Commission.