Why are we opening Restorative Justice Centers?
Despite a comparatively low level of crime, Poland belongs to those European countries with highest rates of prison population. One of the reasons is that most offenders receive suspended prison sentences. This means they walk out of court free, with a feeling of impunity. It also means they are offered no real assistance in solving problems that had led them to breaking the law; as a result, many reoffend and end up in already overcrowded prison.
Court Watch Poland Foundation wants to change that by establishing Restorative Justice Centers – non-governmental institutions that help local justice system better deal with low-level offenders by using community-oriented sentencing and restorative justice.
The Foundation has been working on designing and creating the Centers since 2012 – when we were inspired by problem-solving courts in the United States. Representatives of the Foundation had a chance to observe community courts and other problem-solving courts in New York and Minneapolis. We initiated a joint research project with scholars from three leading Polish universities (in Białystok, Gdańsk, and Toruń). The project, funded by the Polish National Center for Research and Development, allowed us to come back to the US in 2014 and visit Norway, where we learned from National Mediation Service. Back in Poland we were able to engage a wide range of practitioners – including judges, prosecutors, probation officers, mediators, and representatives of the Ministry of Justice – in an effort to design and create Restorative Justice Centers.
Restorative Justice Center in Toruń is scheduled to open in April 2015; the second one will be opened in Białystok in May 2015. The Centers will closely cooperate with local institutions of justice – especially the probation service – as well as social services, law enforcement agencies and other NGOs. The Centers hope to partner with organizations and institutions, which could accept offenders for community service, but also with those which could provide assistance to some of the offenders. The main goal of the Centers is, therefore, to combine effective punishment with restoration, understood as meaningful compensation by the offender to the victim and to the local community, with various forms of assistance to the offenders themselves, in order to prevent them from reoffending. Restorative Justice Centers will also promote Alternative Dispute Resolution measures, such as mediation and restorative circles.
In the long run, Restorative Justice Centers aim at bringing Polish justice system closer to the people, and – as a consequence – enhancing citizens’ trust in the rule of law and justice in Poland.