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“We’ve got evidence that our work reduces reoffending”: A Conversation with Rachel Powning

Thomas Ponissi speaks with the General Manager of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre about non-punitive justice, workplace dynamics, stigma around criminal offending and more. The views expressed here are Rachel’s own, and are not a formal representation of the views of the Magistrate’s Court of Victoria.

Rachel Powning has worked directly with communities throughout her career, including in her two years as Mayor of the City of Port Phillip. Now Rachel serves as General Manager of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC), Australia’s only community justice centre. The NJC — which falls under the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria’s Specialist Courts and Programs and Division — is a “one-stop-justice-centre”.[1] Comprising a court, a range of support services, and various specialist teams, the NJC works to prevent and resolve conflict via “restorative and therapeutic justice practices, community engagement, and non-adversarial justice solutions”. [2]


Please note that this interview contains references to sexual and family violence.

 

How did you end up involved in restorative justice?

I have worked in the social justice field in different forms for most of my career. I’ve worked in international development as well as in local government, working with the community and delivering services that improve social conditions. I've always been driven by justice concepts, by a more just society, and there are a whole range of things that the Neighbourhood Justice Center [‘NJC’] does to contribute to resolving and preventing conflict. I was attracted to working here because it sort of calls on all of my skills; really taking that philosophy of trying to get to the cause of challenges or problems or conflict, rather than just focusing on the end result. The other reason I work in the area is because I am a big believer in the role of the justice sector in preventing crime and finding long-term sustainable solutions to crime.


What does your role as general manager now involve? You don’t specifically practice restorative justice yourself, is that correct?

Yes — I’m responsible for the overall management of the centre. My job is really to direct the various managers in the areas: the manager of programs and innovation, client services, business services, the lawyers. My job is really to bring all of those functions together and provide direction to the overall Centre. Because the Neighbourhood Justice Center is part of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, a big part of my job is working with the rest of the Magistrates’ Court Victoria and linking our work into theirs. We deal with offences in the Magistrates’ Court only, not County. We do sit as a Children’s Court one day a month, though, and we also have an Aboriginal hearing day — a little like Koori Court, but it is not a sentencing court.


Is it challenging that restorative justice is just one part of what the NJC offers as a service? You’re interacting with a wide range of stakeholders and members of the community who either may not be involved in restorative justice or who may run or have services that are, I suppose, contrary to restorative justice? For example, people working in sentencing or corrections.

Not really, because every person that works at the Centre is a supporter of alternative approaches anyway. The Magistrate that we have is certainly supportive of therapeutic justice approaches and restorative justice, so it's not a challenge.


That's great to hear. What do you feel is the most common misconception about restorative justice?

I think the most common misconception is that it’s a softer option for people that offend. That it lets offenders off a bit.


How do you respond to that?

Well, I respond to it by saying that we've got evidence that our work does reduce reoffending — so that's number one. If it results in people offending less, then surely it's a better approach. What does punishing people actually achieve if we're not reducing their reoffending? Incarceration is expensive and doesn’t necessarily make communities safer in the long term. Our model is also consistent: if they have one Magistrate, people are more likely to be responsive to the decisions made by that Magistrate. If you re-appear before one Magistrate and are, say, put on diversion for three months, and then you don’t do what’s required by the order — when you come back to the Magistrate who gave you an opportunity and did their best to support you, you’re probably going to feel a bit embarrassed by it. We find that building that rapport is much more effective as opposed to seeing a different Magistrate.


You’ve mentioned reduced recidivism. What does a successful restorative justice outcome look like to you? Do you see it as central to a decreased risk of reoffending?

Absolutely. Also, depending on the process that's used, the victim of the crime or the alleged offending will come out of it feeling more empowered and able to heal after the experience. That’s a measure of success. There is healing for both the families of the offender and the victim, because everyone is affected— and so how those people feel that their experiences have improved as well. Let’s consider a few things we do at the NJC. We’ve got a restorative family violence service for people that have experienced family violence, and it might be further down the track - the violence has stopped, but they want some closure. Or, there's been a history of sexual abuse within a family, and the perpetrator is dead; you might just want to have a restorative service with your siblings or your parents. We also do ‘problem solving’ meetings, where we have someone that will meet with an offender and all of their family, and you get support services in and run a session to try and understand why they're offending, and what can we do to help them not offend. Then we have classic mediation services. Success for each of those different types would look different. We also run ‘circle programs’, which are based on an American model. That involves bringing a group of people together — and we use this quite a bit for neighbourhood conflicts — to try and work through what the conflict is within the neighbourhood. The idea is to prevent it from escalating to Court in the first place.


When you say a neighbourhood conflict, what do you mean by that?

An example the Magistrate likes to give was in the housing estates. There were just a group of children who would run down to one of the neighbour's doors and keep knocking on the door and then running away. And it got to the point where the neighbour took out a personal safety intervention order against the children’s families. The magistrate thought the circle process would be good for a scenario like this. But it could be disputes about barking dogs. Anything, really, where there are neighbours or community. We used the circle approach around the medically supervised injection room in Richmond and the way the community relates to that.


So by design, the NJC tries to deal with things before they escalate to the level of a legal conflict?

Exactly. That's the idea: to try and stop things coming to court and getting worse — or at the other end, after court, to try and provide some healing to victims, mainly of family violence.




"I think part of the problem is that it’s a real taboo subject. If you know someone that's been in prison, or if you have a family member that's been in custody, it's not something you want to talk about. There's a lot of shame there."

- Rachel Powning






I’ve spoken with interviewees about Will Smith’s assault of Chris Rock at the Oscars, and feminist writer and academic Roxane Gay’s suggestion that restorative justice was an ideal option “to address the harm and to create repair”. The Smith/Rock incident has a lot of nuance to it — there’s race, gender, disability, socio-economic privilege — so I want to use it as a starting point for a broader discussion. When you’re dealing with disputes that involve participants from communities different to your own, or with vastly different life experiences, how do you ensure the process is sensitive to their identities? For example, you mentioned working with the Koori Court — do you have a team that is specifically versed in issues pertaining to First Nations People?

It's a good question, and actually I think we could probably do better in that area. We do have a Koori justice worker, which is helpful. She can be consulted as needed. The diversity of our team is not fantastic, and not really a reflection of some of the community groups that we work with; for example, the African community. So we could probably improve on that, to ensure that our programs are sensitive to and mindful of cultural practices, without minimising the need for all cultures to comply with Australian law. How do we get them to best comply? It's understanding how their cultures work and working within them as well, isn't it? It’s an issue that I think would affect most organisations, and most services that would really want to do more and to do better. We particularly need to take heed of that, because of the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the justice system. It's a good point you raise and I might have to think about how we can better ensure that our programs are sensitive to the different cultures we work with, because that will make our work more effective.


Thank you for that answer. I really appreciate your honesty. You’ve spoken a lot about the benefits of restorative justice to the community to participants. I was wondering what you think are the benefits of working in this field for yourself?

I think feeling like you're improving issues or problems — making a difference, so to speak, and improving the lives of people. Anything we can do to reduce crime and custody levels is important, because in some cases, custody can be effective, but in many it’s not the best long term solution.. So reducing incarceration and making the community safer are motivators for me. The work is very interesting, too; we’re trying new ways and approaches.


I suppose the inverse of that, then, is: What are the challenges of working in this area?

The public perception that it's all a bit airy fairy. That restorative justice can take a lot of time, so wouldn't it just be easier just to send people to jail? Also, trying to work out all the referral processes. Working out if the circle approach is a good option for someone, or if a mediation pathway would be better. It’s problem solving. Like any general manager or director role, you've got lots of different teams doing different things, so keeping them all on track, trying to deal with their own disputes and differences of opinions. That's often a challenge.


Absolutely. I would like to read you a passage from a text published earlier this year by four American feminist activist-academics advocating for prison abolition. They write:

“Many of these small [restorative justice] networks fracture as a result of pressure from funders and others to expand, “scale up,” “streamline,” or “brand,” or to provide a service rather than organise, focus on policy work not base work, elevate a single charismatic leader/director instead of a collective, network with legislators not ordinary people. [...] Since paid employment has opened up for restorative justice practitioners and experts, many of these positions can now only be filled by someone with expensive certifications and credentials.” [3]

What is your perspective?

I agree that that it is a problem. That whole management culture is a problem really, isn't it? And one of the things we do with our peacemaking service, which uses the circle methodology, is actually train people in the community so that they can deliver it. We're definitely working to ensure that the community can build skills in restorative practices, and that's a way of countering that. At the same time, there are some aspects of restorative practice — for example, family violence or sexual abuse — where you would want someone who is quite skilled and has a background in psychology or counselling or working in that service. It could possibly have very much to do with the aspect of restorative justice, really. But I generally agree with the point they’re making.


This may be the most complex question of all: Do you have hope for the future of restorative justice more generally?

Yes. Definitely. I think it's growing in popularity and, hopefully, in funding. Generally, people in society are starting to understand that jailing people is not always the answer. I'm quite confident we will get there.


You allude to the importance of funding to organisations like yours in doing the work you do. What else would help push society in a more positive direction? Does the state play a central role, or is it more about cultural change?

I think part of the problem is that it’s a real taboo subject. If you know someone that's been in prison, or if you have a family member that's been in custody, it's not something you want to talk about. There's a lot of shame there. If we can progress the discussion a bit more; if people feel more comfortable to talk about it; if we understand crime is often driven by health needs. Just having messaging around it might help, and hearing from people that have lived experience.


Do you think that in an ideal world, restorative justice would completely supplement the punitive model of criminal justice? Or do you think that those two approaches need to sustainably coexist?

It's a good question, isn't it? I would love to think that we could eventually move away from punitive justice, and more towards problem solving justice. I think there are probably some individuals in society who are either so damaged or have such mental health challenges that they need to be removed from society more broadly, for safety reasons. But I would say the number of those people is pretty low. So I think, yes, in the ideal society, I could see a world where that would be possible.


This interview has been condensed for clarity.



References

[1] ‘About us’, Neighbourhood Justice Centre (Web Page, 3 July 2019) <https://www.neighbourhoodjustice.vic.gov.au/about-us>.

[2] Neighbourhood Justice Centre, ’About’ (LinkedIn, online at 15 July 2022) <https://www.linkedin.com/company/neighbourhood-justice-centre/>.

[3] Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. Richie, Abolition. Feminism. Now. (Hamish Hamilton, 2022) 163-4.


 

Thomas Ponissi is a fourth year Law/Global Studies student, specialising in Human Rights. He works in the refugee settlement sector, as well as at a community legal centre for disadvantaged clients. Thomas’ favourite books are A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.


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