The Blog

Ched Evans and the Double-Edged Sword of Restorative Justice

There is no doubt that rape is a horrible crime. I would not have mentioned murder and terrorism in the same breath otherwise. But there is a lesson to be learnt here, and it is a lesson of double standards.

Sheffield United recently announced that Ched Evans has returned to training after serving a jail sentence for raping a 19-year-old woman at a hotel in Rhyl. There are hundreds of interesting questions about this case. But for now I'm interested in a double standard that seems increasingly common: why is it that those who normally focus so much on lenience towards criminals (particularly regarding, for example, corporal and capital punishment), restorative justice, and the reintegration of criminals into society tend to be the same people criticising Sheffield United for offering precisely those things?

The Green Party's 2010 manifesto pledges, for example, to 'establish restorative justice as a key feature of the UK criminal justice system' which, 'while denouncing the crime, [deals] constructively with both the victim and the offender.' They also aim to educate prisoners with literacy skills, while decrying the use of the death penalty at home and abroad.

The Liberal Democrats say the same thing in their 2015 pre-manifesto, emphasising the need to help offenders become positive members of society and for prisons to be places of rehabilitation.

This alternative to the apparently primitive, barbaric, vengeful aims of retributive justice - where criminals are punished because they deserve it, not because the punishment is corrective - is often regarded as being the progressive, enlightened response to wrongdoing among certain left-wing audiences. It is not difficult to find an article in The Guardian extolling the virtues of this view of justice. Meanwhile, the lack of emphasis on retribution in the justice system is seen by more conservative factions as a pallid, naïve response to serious wrongdoing, and an offence to any victims involved.

Perhaps the truth includes both: punishment is retributive and restorative. Retribution alone runs the risk of barbarism, vengeance, and the cycles of violence which inevitably develop from a lack of mercy and forgiveness. Facing this prospect, many people rightly point out the need for restoration and redemption in the justice system.

But here comes the problem: losing all talk of retribution and desert does the victim a second injustice. Not only do they suffer the harm and indignity of being hurt in the first place; their brokenness is also trivialised by the failure to see the culprit as deserving of punishment.

Thanks to the Ched Evans case, where Sheffield United have received a torrent of criticism for allowing the footballer to return to his job after serving his sentence, the importance of making strong (and sometimes offensive), uncompromising moral judgments is once again being recognised, along with the importance of retributive justice, which takes seriously the harm done to the victim.

But this has thrown up a real dilemma for those who normally dismiss retribution and capital punishment as primitive barbarism. For the same people who so often champion restorative punishment in place of retribution are now the ones who, recognising the evil of rape, have called for Ched Evans to never work as a footballer again. But what does restorative justice look like? Restorative justice works on improving the culprit as a person, helping them to use their talents to be a productive, functional member of society. And that is exactly what letting Ched Evans play football again does. Yet those who are normally so opposed to what they think is cruel, vengeful punishment of terrorists and murderers are the ones calling for permanent, irredeemable bans on Ched Evans, so that he can never again contribute to society by doing what he is good at. The middle-class elite who bemoan the mercilessness of punishment for terrorists and murderers (usually when they are not the victims) are now the people calling for the most ruthless, graceless punishment for Ched Evans.

There is no doubt that rape is a horrible crime. I would not have mentioned murder and terrorism in the same breath otherwise. But there is a lesson to be learnt here, and it is a lesson of double standards. We cannot have our cake and eat it. If we really believe in mercilessness and in retribution over restoration, we cannot continue to lament capital punishment, or to criticise retributive justice, or to claim that we stand for restorative justice.

If, on the other hand, we really are for restoration and redemption of criminals, we have to do it even when it repulses us, and even when it is tough. Restoration is easy to talk about in academic and middle-class circles, but much harder to stomach when it hits closer to home. But that is what restoration and forgiveness are all about. The greatest restorative justice movements in history only worked when those directly hurt by the most abhorrent crimes took the agonising step towards reconciliation and forgiveness. Restorative justice, when confined to liberal political manifestos, is no more than soppy, offensive idealism. Put into practice, there is a lot more hurting, grieving, and mess. That is the price of reconciliation. If we really believe in it, let's recognise the full horror of people's wrongdoing, the bravery of those who show grace, and let's do it even when it hurts.