Offending Girls and Restorative Justice: The Relevance and Rationale of Gender-Specific Provision

Jodie Hodgson is Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Liverpool

The formative experiences of girls who come into contact with the youth justice service are often characterised by inequalities, social injustice and disadvantage. Furthermore, empirical research has revealed the ‘importance of victimisation in the aetiology of young women’s offending’ and the prevalent role gendered violence and victimisation plays in shaping the backgrounds of girls in the youth justice system. Therefore, based upon the extent to which the individual narratives of girls who enter the system are impacted by such issues, it becomes evident that they are subject to risks and vulnerabilities which determine the need to adopt a ‘distinctive gender-sensitive approach’ to working with girls who offend.

However, the relevance and rationale of gender-specific approaches to working with girls has continued to remain at the periphery of restorative justice discourse. When considering the development of restorative justice policy and practice, it is apparent that restorative justice interventions, used within the youth justice system continue to operate outside of a gender-specific or gender-sensitive framework. Subsequently, they fail to recognise the ways in which the social construction of gender shapes the lives of girls and is implicated within their offending behaviour and experiences of criminalisation.

Since its implementation as a mainstream response to youth offending, restorative justice has gained momentum as an alternative approach to delivering justice. Whilst an evidence base has emerged which reveals the positive impact restorative interventions can have on recidivism and victim satisfaction, critical perspectives and empirical research which, articulate the more problematic side to restorative justice practices used with young offenders, have also developed.

Although there is now a substantial body of literature concerning youth offending and restorative justice, it is suggested that ‘scant attention has been paid to gender-based variation’ and almost all feminist discussions relating to the role of gender in restorative justice ‘address the ways in which it may help or hinder female victims . . . [and] few have ventured to consider how it may help or hinder female offenders’. Official policy discourse has remained, predominantly, silent on issues of gender and at present there is ‘no evaluation of the ‘’effectiveness’’ of restorative justice as a response to young female offenders’. As such, the extent to which restorative justice policy and practice is able to effectively respond to the gender-specific needs of girls has been alarmingly neglected.

Having undertaken qualitative research with girls who have participated in restorative justice, victim-offender conferencing, and restorative justice practitioners working within the youth offending service, my own research has identified a number of salient issues to consider when responding to girls’ offending behaviour through restorative justice interventions.

Stigma

My research found that girls participating in restorative justice conferencing are likely to be stigmatised for their offending behaviour as it is viewed as a transgression of gender norms and expectations in relation to the ideals of femininity. It was suggested, by the practitioners interviewed, that the presence of such stigma could impact on their self-esteem whilst also affecting the way they are responded to by others participating in the conference. The findings also indicated that experiences of stigma may have implications for girls’ feelings of shame around their offending behaviour, evoked during the restorative justice conference, and how these feelings are experienced and internalised.

Shame

The emotion of shame is considered to be an integral element underpinning restorative justice conferencing. This is primarily because the theoretical premise upon which restorative justice is based has become closely associated with Braithwaite’s (1989) Reintegrative Shaming Theory (RIST) (Marshall, 1999). The theory suggests that, coming face to face with the victim of their offence, and learning about the harm caused by their behaviour, will evoke shame within those charged with an offence. Braithwaite suggests this experience of shame will not only prevent the individual from re-offending but will also provide the opportunity for them to repair the harm caused by their offending thereby reintegrating them back into the community.

The majority of the girls interviewed described experiencing feelings of shame during the restorative justice conference. This research suggests that there is the potential for these experiences of shame to be affected by the girls’ experiences of stigma following their offending behaviour. This is because the stigma attached to their identity, as a result of transgressing gender norms, is inextricably linked to their offending behaviour.

As these transgressions of femininity are not the focus of the restorative justice conference, the opportunity for these transgressions to be contested by girls in order for them to reject the stigma attached to their identity is not provided. Therefore, their experience of shame during the restorative justice conference could potentially exacerbate their stigmatised identity. This argument highlights a clear distinction with regards to girls’ experiences of shame in a restorative justice conference as opposed to boys.

The negative implications of shame

The empirical data, provided by practitioners participating in this research study, suggested that girls internalise shame differently compared to young males, which exacerbates feelings of self-blame for their offending behaviour. Furthermore, practitioners suggested that girls’ feelings of shame, expressed within a restorative justice conference, could be associated with previous negative experiences such as abuse or victimisation in their formative years.

It was further articulated that the association of shame with previous negative experiences could, in turn, instigate strategies to cope with these feelings, such as self-harming and self-destructive behaviours. Practitioners suggested that such behaviours could be used as a means to manage the emotional pain associated with feelings of shame, inducing negative implications for girls’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

Furthermore, the association of shame with previous negative experiences could, in turn, instigate strategies to cope with these feelings, such as self-harming and self-destructive behaviours. Practitioners suggested that such behaviours could be used as a means to manage the emotional pain associated with feelings of shame, inducing negative implications for girls’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

The empirical findings from this research study suggest that we need to reconsider the appropriateness of restorative justice conferencing for girls and young women within the youth justice system. The issues raised are cross-cutting and relevant to the youth justice service and determine the need to incorporate gender-specific provision into restorative justice policy and practice, as a matter of urgency, if this approach to delivering justice is to be of benefit to those involved.

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