Α Discussion with Professor Ivo Aertsen

Ivo Aertsen

by Katerina Soulou, 

PhD  candidate at Aix-Marseille University

EFRJ Board member

Certified teaching assistant by Paris 13 University (IdEF)

Short bio

Professor Ivo Aertsen (Belgium) started his career in the 70’s as a psychologist, working in the central prison of Leuven and then acting as a pioneer on victim support in his country. He obtained a law degree from KU Leuven in 1992 and since the 90’s he has worked at the Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC) teaching Penology and Victimology. Combining his academic knowledge with his expertise of the field he conducted an action research on the potential of victim-offender mediation for serious crimes. His work provided an important ground for the development of victim-offender mediation all over Flanders. In 2001 he is appointed assistant professor and in 2015 full professor in KU Leuven, while being the director of the LINC for the period (2012-2016).

Beyond the impact on his country and the academic sphere, Professor Aertsen is a real reference point all over Europe and beyond. He has provided training for many professionals working in the criminal justice field (magistrates, mediators etc.) in several countries. He was member of the Committee of Experts on Mediation in penal matters elaborating the relevant Council of Europe recommendation in 1999. Since then he has been invited to act as an expert consultant in policy making not only in his country but also in the European level and internationally. In 2000 he founded with others the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ) and became its first chair (2000-2004). He has been the coordinator of more than 50 European projects bringing together institutions and researchers from all over the world. In 2013 he co-founded and became the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Restorative Justice. From 2012-1018 he was a member of the Executive Committee of the World Society of Victimology.


<Katerina>: Narratives and personal stories are of vital importance for Restorative Justice (RJ), so let me start our discussion with a brief story. I think it is the best way to explain why I feel particularly glad and excited about this interview.

I met Professor Ivo Aertsen in 2016, just in the end of the first year of my PhD. It was during the 9thInternational Conference of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ) in Leiden, the Netherlands. However, the first time I listened Ivo talking about RJ was not on a panel or during a plenary of this conference. It was after the first day’s session, in a nice bar somewhere in the center of Leiden, where I was proposed to join a group of researchers. At that time, I was feeling somehow confused and “lost”, as my research topic, RJ, is a relatively “unknown” topic, especially for legal scholars. Since the very first moment, I got impressed by Ivo. He was explaining “complicated” issues in such a direct and simple way. The discussion inspired me a lot and I felt encouraged to talk to him about my research. Ivo was listening to me with attention and gave me precious advises. After our interesting discussion, he invited me to visit the Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC).

On October 2016 I spent almost two weeks in Leuven, where I did some research supervised by Ivo. I had the opportunity to experience the “openness” of his mind, the care, the support, the human and scientific commitment that Ivo shows to his students and to his researchers. He was so inclusive and radically different from many other professors. After that first visit in Leuven, I kept the contact not only with Ivo and the other researchers from the LINC but I also decided to commit myself to the EFRJ. The coming years, we met a lot of times with Ivo, as I went back to Leuven several times and also to almost all the international events of the EFRJ. Every time, I was feeling the same attention, care and encouragement. On June 2018, I had the honor to be elected Board member of the EFRJ, an idea that I had first discussed with Ivo, before applying for it.

So, Ivo, me, as other people that I know, I consider you as a “father” not only on the field of RJ but also on my personal “research journey” on the topic of RJ. Hence, I feel particularly honored that I have the opportunity to interview you for Crime Times. I would like to also express my gratitude for accepting my proposition. It is the first time I suppose that you are interviewed for a Greek journal, right?

 <Ivo>:Yes, indeed, this is the very first time that I have the pleasure to enter into dialogue with a Greek audience – besides a remarkable holiday that I spent 40 years ago in the Northern part of Greece. But I suppose you want to talk about other things than how young people discovered the beautiful islands of Lesbos and Limnos in the 1970’s?

Katerina Soulou together with Professor Ivo Aertsen, during his emeritus ceremony on 21 October 2019 in Leuven, Belgium.

<Katerina>: Well, that might be interesting too, but there are other questions I would like to ask you, indeed! Let me start with the classic but essential question. Essential because some of our readers will probably read about RJ for the first time from you. So, what is “Restorative Justice”?

<Ivo>: “Restorative justice” is a new way of looking at crime, and of how to respond to crime and other injustices. Restorative justice requires “a change of mindset”. We are all very much caught within one particular way of looking at the phenomenon of crime and at criminal justice, and oftentimes we are not aware of this particular view and of the existence of fundamentally alternative ways of defining crime and criminal justice. Restorative justice is looking at crime not in an abstract way, as the violation of the law, but in a concrete way, as the violation of people and relationships.

Crime is something that happens between people, as you and me, causing harm in a material or in a psychological and social way. Therefore, the first attempt of our responses to crime should be to repair the harm, to help the victim, to make the offender understand the harm he/she has caused and to support him/her to make things good. We do not need additional harm and pain to be caused to people after the commission of a crime, for example by punishing offenders in a harsh way, or by excluding them from society through long prison sanctions, without any positive effect on them, on victims or on society at large. Restorative justice has different kinds of methods to make this alternative approach possible, mainly by offering a safe space where victims, offenders and other people concerned about what happened, can face each other in difficult circumstances, can develop an understanding and can take up responsibility.

Therefore, restorative justice stands not for a punitive, exclusionary or stigmatizing approach, but for a restorative, inclusive, participatory and reintegrating approach to crime. After many years of practice and research, we have learned that this is not an illusion, but it has become a reality through practices such as mediation and conferencing, and that these practices can be applied to all kind of crimes, also the most serious ones.

 <Katerina>: I will focus on your last phrase, Ivo, and the applicability of restorative practices to all kinds of crime, even in serious cases. However, in many countries, RJ is still not widely known and, thus, not widely used. In Greece for example, in criminal matters, we can find practices inspired by restorative principles and values only in the field of domestic violence and of juveniles. According to your personal experience, is RJ suitable for serious cases? What we can expect as benefits or results?

 <Ivo>:Yes, restorative justice methods can be and are used for almost all crimes, of all degrees of seriousness. I do not see one good reason to exclude a priori some crimes from a restorative response or some people from the possibility to talk to each other. Restorative justice is an approach to crime based on the needs of people. If people want to understand what happened, and why it happened, or they want to convey a message or questions to the other party, or they wish to express their anger and other emotions, why we should impede this? On the name of what or whom this should be refused? I believe, on the contrary, that we should help them to make this possible, to talk to each other, to come to terms with what happened, to find solutions, redress and closure. We have to offer them a space, a forum, where they can communicate with “the other”. Therefore, we need good mediators or facilitators to offer methods such as mediation or family-group conferences or peacemaking circles. A good mediator is trained and well prepared to assess the situation. He/she knows when an intervention of mediation can take place, or when it is too risky for one of the parties.

Restorative justice should not be restricted only to people who know each other, for example in the context of domestic violence. By the commission of a crime, victim and offender are linked to each other in any way, usually involuntary, and in most cases they have legitimate questions and concerns towards each other. In addition, restorative justice should not be limited to less serious crimes, or to first offenders, or to juvenile offenders. How can you defend the idea that people who have been victimized by an adult offender are excluded from the possibility of asking questions to the person who harmed them? It is often the victims of serious crimes, committed by recidivists as well, that have the biggest need to make something clear to the offender, to show the consequences of the crime to them. In short, if we take victims and their needs seriously, we should apply mediation and other restorative justice practices also, and maybe even in the first place, to cases of serious crime. But once again: we need well experienced and well trained mediators for this practice. Mediation is not just a hobby!

On top of that, restorative justice values and principles can be used for crimes where no dialogue is possible between the stakeholders. Police officers, or probation workers, or public prosecutors, or victim support workers, or prison staff: they all can integrate restorative justice values and principles in their daily work, even when they interact only with one party, either the victim or the offender. These professionals can keep the perspective and the needs of the other party in mind when dealing with their “client”, and they can support him/her to feel responsible and to offer some types of reparation. When dealing with crime, there are always various parties, and there is the interest of society. People working in this field should act in an encompassing, inclusive, nuanced and balanced way.

<Katerina>: RJ could be considered as an “invitation” for an interdisciplinary dialogue, so let’s talk about interdisciplinarity. You started your career as a practitioner, that is to say as a psychologist working with prisoners and later on victim support. You obtained a law degree and became a Professor in the Law faculty, teaching penology, victimology, restorative justice, forensic mental health, criminal law, etc. Hence, you never stayed “loyal” only to one field or discipline. You combined not only different disciplines but also academia and practice, since you were always seeking for research to have a societal impact.

How important you consider interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration in the criminological field? Is interdisciplinary collaboration necessary for achieving a concrete societal impact through research?

<Ivo>:Restorative justice is indeed a field where the potential of interdisciplinarity comes to the fore convincingly. We approach crime too much from one perspective, from one institution, from one profession or one discipline. Delinquency, or victimization, cannot be understood only from one angle. These phenomena are not just individual events, but have social causes and consequences. Of course, dealing with crime happens towards individual offenders and victims, hence, at the individual level, but our interventions are very much shaped by institutional determinants and by broader societal requirements. In other words, the personal (micro) level, the institutional (meso) level and the societal (macro) level are very much interwoven, and hence, responding to crime within a criminal justice system has completely different characteristics and effects than, for example, sanctioning practices in a family or educational context.

Responding to crime in society requires first understanding crime. All too often, our reactions to crime are driven by a – well understandable – desire to have an immediate effect. And we think that we can achieve this effect by imposing a punishment, and when we do not impose a harsh punishment, we are afraid that this will be considered as a weak reaction or a non-reaction. But once again, controlling crime through imposing punishment without any clear objective, is doomed to fail. Crime can be best controlled within society by informal justice mechanisms, in an adequate interplay with the formal justice system. And it is at this intermediary level that victim-offender mediation and other restorative practices can play a decisive role.

Many of us have understood in the meantime that our criminal justice systems, with their focus on bringing more and more citizens under one or another form of punitive control, for more and more types of harmful behavior, are a never ending story and find themselves in a dead end street. We are in need of a fundamental reform, a real re-thinking of crime and punishment. We need the knowledge and expertise of social workers and psychologists, and we have to bring them into contact with legal professionals such as public prosecutors, judges and lawyers, and on top of that, we have to bring in sociologists and political scientists. Until today, in most of our countries, all those are separated groups that do not talk to each other and do not understand each other’s rationales. Interdisciplinarity cannot be reduced to a juxtaposition or a sum of various disciplines – that would be ‘multidisciplinarity’ – but it is essentially making the bridge between these disciplines, by confronting and challenging, and learning from each other’s logics and ways of thinking. Criminal justice reform will never be effective if we are not able to bring these groups together and to support them in coming with innovative, sector transcending ideas and new types of interventions.

In these interdisciplinary endeavors, we must always be aware of the societal impact, or the lack of societal impact, our work has. This is true for both research and practice. Therefore, ‘transdisciplinarity’ is so important: developing much closer cooperation between researchers, practitioners and policy makers. All too often, we do not know what the effects or impact of our interventions are. This comes together with important ethical considerations. How far can we go by imposing pain or control on our fellow citizens, how long can we continue to use the prison sentence, knowing that it does not contribute to more safety in society, what kind of rights should be given to victims when they claim harsher punishment, how should we behave politically when confronted with penal populism in our governments? In short, we should stop believing in these meaningless and ineffective approaches to crime, and we should have the courage to ask more fundamental questions.

<Katerina>: I will focus on what you said about the need of a fundamental re-thinking of crime and punishment. This brings to my mind the rationale of the new Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)8 concerning RJ in criminal matters. And besides, you had an important consultancy role during the meetings of the Council of Europe for its adoption. So, according to the commentary of this Recommendation, what is basically proposed is a “cultural change” in criminal matters. To use the commentary’s formulation, “this Recommendation goes further than the 1999 Recommendation in calling for a broader shift in criminal justice across Europe towards a more restorative culture and approach within criminal justice systems”.

However, in a period of vicious and repressive criminal policies, such as human rights violations, surveillance abuse, police brutality, over-criminalizing and high incarceration rates, do you think that European countries will finally make this step towards a “cultural change” and “humanize” their criminal policies? What is the future of RJ in Europe?

<Ivo>:Yes, indeed, this need for a cultural shift among judicial authorities and criminal justice agencies is crucial. Not only new legal knowledge is necessary to implement restorative justice, but much more it requires the adoption of the right attitudes and skills, also within the criminal justice system. It requires a new definition and appropriation of tasks and goals of the criminal justice system. And this is much more difficult to obtain within such a system as the actual one, where a strict legalistic culture dominates and where psychological and sociological knowledge and communication skills remain underdeveloped.

And yes, indeed, we live in turbulent times. But I would say: we mainly live in ambivalent times. There is, in fact, a strong tendency to more repression, more control, discrimination of minority groups, institutional violence and hyper-incarceration. But there is also a strong movement towards more democracy, more direct citizens’ participation in decision making, more solidarity with vulnerable or oppressed people, more justice … I find it extremely difficult to know in which direction our societies will evolve. And me too, I am very much concerned about many developments, including manifestations of polarization and political extremism. But at the same time, we all have the duty to act and to behave as citizens, to feel responsible for the common good, and not to give up in our social challenges. And here again, I personally feel strengthened by restorative justice values, as they refer not only to a type of intervention, but to a style of life and an aspiration to do the “right thing”.

<Katerina>:During 2012-2016 you have been the coordinator of the ALTERNATIVE European project, whose objective was to develop alternative understandings of security and justice through RJ approaches in intercultural settings. We know that RJ is not only applied to criminal matters, but also to a broader social area where conflicts, injustices, violence, suffering, crisis exist.

 Last decade, Greece has been associated with the word “crisis”. Financial crisis, political crisis, migrant and refugee crisis... Although there is an interconnection among the above-mentioned problems, let me focus on the last one and on security issues. The number of people arriving every day under difficult situations in Greece is big and the country is still struggling to deal with the migrant and refugee crisis. In addition, after years of austerity policies, the local population is not always ready to “welcome” those people and a general feeling of “insecurity” and “injustice” is nourished by the situation.

 So, Ivo, how RJ could respond to this problem, based on your experience?

 <Ivo>:Restorative justice has, indeed, a broader field of application and relevance than just the criminal justice system. I have referred to this above. Well, one of the key values of restorative justice is “responsibility” and “solidarity”. One of the implications of these values is to show “hospitality” towards the Other, including other cultures. Interculturality as such is usually not the major problem, it is the frame through which interculturality is presented, that is the most problematic. In the case of migrants or refugees, what scares us – and what politically is exploited by many parties – is the threat of insecurity, crime and job losses. We should de-connect this link and try to look at migration as something that happens to people, who most often make the difficult decision to leave their home country searching for a better or more safe life. Therefore, from a restorative justice way of looking at this, establishing personal contact with migrants and refugees is a key. This must be done not only at the interpersonal level, but also at the group level. The latter is not easy, as it often requires a whole process of building mutual trust. What we have learned from the European ALTERNATIVE project in four countries that are confronted with intercultural tensions, is that developing these relationships of trust can be initiated and facilitated by small groups of citizens or pockets of people who take bridging initiatives at the local level.

Now, “responsibility” and “solidarity” play an important role also at the international and European level. When a country such as Greece is investing that much efforts in dealing with the migrant crisis, it must count on the solidarity of other countries, and, in this case, also the EU member States. And in this respect, it is a shame that some countries refuse to take up their responsibility. Here, the lesson for restorative justice practitioners is that they should develop capabilities also at the political level, for example by establishing direct contact with government and political parties or by building affiliations with other civil society organizations.

 <Katerina>: Ivo, you have been a pioneer of RJ in Europe and one of the co-founders of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ). In fact, this year we will celebrate its 20th anniversary. During our last annual Board meeting in Leuven we observed that the Forum has “grown up” not only in terms of membership and networking, but also in terms of impact on policy, of initiatives in research and practice, of quality of trainings and events, etc. If I ask you to go back to 2000, the year of Forum’s foundation, would you like to share with us what was the dream back then? Did it come true?

 <Ivo>: The European Forum started after previous informal contacts on the occasion of conferences or study visits and after some of us had met in the Council of Europe in the second half of the 1990’s to prepare the 1999 Recommendation on mediation in penal matters. These first contacts made clear that various European countries had initiated truly innovative projects in the field of – what we now call – restorative justice. But the initiators and the leading figures were often isolated, also within their own country. And they were struggling with a lack of funding and inappropriate legislation. In short, notwithstanding the very promising perspectives of mediation programs in several countries and the positive research findings, the movement did not break through. Therefore, we decided to help each other across the borders, to exchange experiences, practices and policies, to offer mutual support, and to undertake common projects. By the late 1990’s, we found the way to EU funding programs, and we became quite successful in applying for so-called action grants and other funding at the European level. After ample discussion with a group of national representatives, we decided in 2000 to create a formal, non-profit organization – the European Forum for Restorative Justice.

The constitution of this organization is very much built on restorative justice values,  and promoting collaboration between different professional groups – mediators, magistrates, governmental representatives and researchers – was (and still is) one of the main principles. We were able to set up a secretariat for the European Forum, hosted by the University of Leuven, and in recent years this secretariat can count on more substantial funding. Of crucial importance was the series of European projects throughout the years, always with active involvement of restorative justice practitioners, researchers and other groups from various countries. Some of these projects focused on the development of restorative justice in a region (Central and Eastern Europe; Southern European countries; the Baltic States), some on the applicability of restorative justice to particular types of offenses (such as domestic violence, sexual violence, terrorism, road traffic accidents, corporate crimes), some on the role of particular professional groups (such as public prosecutors and judges, or civil servants), some on restorative justice models and methodologies (such as family-group conferences and peacemaking circles), some on creating effective support for restorative justice in wider society. The idea was to extend the scope of restorative justice gradually, and to build a strong basis for its effective implementation in European countries. In these projects, research and practice oriented support have always gone hand in hand, for example in the form of hand books, practical guides and video or training materials.

After a few years of uncertainties and struggles around 2010-2015, also because of the lack of a sustainable funding, we now experience a real breakthrough of the European Forum. There is now a strong secretariat with competent staff members with a variety of skills, a well functioning Board and – important – participation by the membership in a whole series of working groups and committees. There are many publications, a well developed website, a newsletter, electronic newsflashes every two weeks, summer schools and our bi-annual European conference (next one in Sassari, in the month of June). There is a lot of networking and advice, training and support, be it through common projects or on an ad hoc basis. The membership has grown to some 500 individuals and organizations from all over Europe. It is very easy to become member, so let me invite Greek people and organizations to join us! Policy oriented work at the national level and towards the EU is now one of the priorities.

So yes, this was a dream that came true, so to say. It was the right thing to do. And it is encouraging, because it shows that cooperation through personal contacts, networking, research, training and common projects, is feasible indeed, that it is effective in making a difference, in working towards a change in our way of doing justice – although the work is far from done. And I strongly believe that we do need the support from Greece, with its long standing tradition and wisdom of participatory justice and democratic governance.

 <Katerina>: Ivo, thank you so much for this discussion. I keep your invitation for Greek people to join the RJ movement and I hope that we will organize soon a RJ event in Greece. It is something that we have already discussed at the Forum. In that way, you can have the opportunity to visit again our country, to meet and talk to Greek people in person. And of course, to enjoy the Greek islands after so many years!

<Ivo>:Thank you, Katerina. I really hope so, too!