Petra is introducing empathetic restorative processes to the criminal justice system in the Czech Republic by engaging law professionals, key gatekeepers of the system, victims, offenders, their communities, and more to make everyone a part of the solution and healing instead of punishing one person and leaving the other actors by themselves. Petra builds a smart network of institutions to champion this movement for reaching a critical mindset shift that will transform the legal system’s focus from punishment to restoration for all parties.
The New Idea
Petra is bringing a new, empathetic, and restorative mindset shift and practices to a traditional and very rigid criminal justice system in Czechia. Her approach aims to transform the definition of justice, from being based on authoritative decisions with punishment as a goal, to a participatory process, based on empathy with the victim and seeking restoration for all parties, including the offender. This way, victims and their families become involved in the legal processes, describing the damage done and having a say in how they feel it can be repaired. This enables healing and prevents double victimization (compounded trauma first from the crime, then from the judicial system). This approach also allows offenders the opportunity to develop empathy for the victims and take responsibility to build their own path towards restoration. It also shifts the role of judges, lawyers, and other legal professionals from distant authoritative figures to instead become agents of healing and restoration, while upholding and enforcing law.
Keenly aware of the vital role of legal practitioners (lawyers, judges, legislators, prison workers, parole officers, etc.) as gatekeepers for any transformation to the legal system, Petra has developed a unique approach to engage them in a hands-on experience where they imagine, experience, and commit to restorative justice. Leaders from these stakeholder groups participate in adapted restorative justice circles where they use restorative methodologies to discuss the issues they see in their systems, how a restorative approach could be applied, and what actions they can commit right now to test restorative justice in their workplace. Rather than pushing down legislative changes from above or implementing restorative programs on the fringes of the system, Petra is enabling these practitioners to discover the responsibility and power they have to change their workplaces and existing processes by involving them in the design of a new criminal justice system for the Czech Republic together. By building this consensus within the system itself, Petra is paving the way for innovative programs, legislative changes, and new processes to be developed, both by her organization, the Restorative Justice Institute, as well as through other organizations that implement smaller and more specific restorative justice programs.
By focusing primarily on the criminal justice system, Petra is also addressing the authoritative, top-down approach to participation in society which is reminiscent of Czechia’s recent totalitarian regime, that strips citizens of agency and power to contribute to change. Criminal justice is indeed the most visible paradigm of this approach: a rigid system in which judges and lawyers determine punishment for breaking a rule, regardless of what victims feel or the circumstances of an offender. In offering a new vision of what criminal justice could look like to all of society, Petra aims to accelerate a societal transformation towards a more horizontal and participatory approach where each citizen feels empowered to contribute to the common good.
The criminal justice system in the Czech Republic (like in most parts of the world) is based on a paradigm that defines crime as breaking rules, and its solution as assigning punishment for the person who committed the felony. This system focuses on the offender and the sentence they must fulfill, generally leaving victims and their families out of the legal process. Lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals function as distant, authoritative figures who make choices for the offender and the victims.
This paradigm is failing at producing positive results. Rather than reducing crime, Czechia ranks sixth in largest prison population in Europe, and recidivism (when offenders commit a new crime after having served their sentence) is climbing at alarming rates, having reached a shocking 52% in 2015 (following a steady upward trend e.g., from 32.3% in 1993 to 45% in 2006). Neither is this system providing a sense of safety or closure for victims. Its rigidity, the sense of de-humanizing distance between citizens and the public authorities that make the decisions, and the length and complexity of procedures provoke high rates of what is known as “secondary victimization,” where victims feel additional blame or guilt in the process of the criminal proceeding (adding to their trauma from the criminal act itself), which can lead to serious trauma and social exclusion. According to a recent survey, victims and society in general are increasingly skeptical about the ability of the system to adequately protect and take into account the needs of victims.
There have been recent attempts to reform the system and yield better results. These have mostly focused on increasing the speed of case resolution and encouraging more harsh sentences for recidivism. Rather than reducing the volume of cases or prison population, they have added stress to the system, with a significant increase in cases and subsequent convictions, which also implied significant added cost to the public.
Restorative justice as an alternative way of viewing justice has been around since Howard Zehr coined the term in the 1970s, inspired by indigenous communities’ ancient approach, which views crime as a hurt that needs healing and restoration, and involves all the affected parties. Indeed, restorative justice programs have been implemented around the world and many have proven successful at lowering recidivism rates and helping victims recover from trauma. However, most of these initiatives are designed to either provide an alternative process for a certain kind of offenders (such as programs focused on young offenders in First Nations communities in Canada) or as a support structure for offenders to engage in during their sentence to help prepare for release (such as the “Fragile Chances” program that the Probation and Mediation Services in the Czech Republic has been running for a number of years). Because they are disconnected from the core of the justice system, their impact is reduced due to their fragmented application. Also, given that most of these programs are implemented by citizen sector organizations or foundations, they have limited funding to scale and are often perceived as outsiders to the system.
One of the key issues that has kept restorative justice principles from transforming the system is the lack of buy-in and participation in design from key stakeholders that practice justice, such as lawyers, judges, prison officials and legislators. Thus, restorative justice programs are either unknown to practitioners or designed in a way that is at odds with the metrics lawyers’ and judges’ performance is measured by. For example, in the Czech Republic, lawyers and judges receive evaluations based on the speed and efficiency in resolving cases, whereas restorative processes are perceived as lengthy and slow moving, causing many legal professionals who may want to use these processes to think twice about it if they want to keep their job. Often, they do not have or know how to use legislation that allows a restorative approach. Further, a lack of support structures for existing initiatives makes it difficult for anyone interested to be able to explore the diversity of ways restorative justice can be implemented, or even know where to find resources or organizations who can provide support.
Beyond the legal professionals, there is a general perception that citizens agree with a paradigm of punishment and would rather see offenders receive harsher sentences than being offered to engage in restorative justice processes. In the Czech Republic, this is also connected to a rigidness and institutionalization which lingers from the communist regime citizens lived under until fairly recently. In fact, the criminal justice system is arguably the most paradigmatic institution for the notion of vertical, authoritative decision-making for others, and punishment as the consequence for breaking rules, where judges and lawyers represent this authority in the public imagination. Any serious advance towards a more democratic society where decision-making is shared by responsible citizens who have the power and tools to participate must involve the criminal justice system. Although this seems like a tall order to many, recent surveys have shown that, when individuals who support an approach of top-down decision and harsh sentences are presented with robust examples of more participatory and “benevolent” judicial processes, most quickly shift their view to see these new processes as reasonable and useful and feel they would support changes to the core of judiciary institutions.
Petra’s strategy revolves around four key areas: changing mindsets of professionals in criminal justice, creating effective systems and tools for restorative principles to be applied to the system, supporting other organizations to launch their own restorative programs, and galvanizing imaginations in society as a whole to open up to a more responsibility-based, participatory approach to justice and civic engagement. After years of work with key institutions and networks to spread restorative justice through existing channels, Petra founded the Restorative Justice Institute in 2018 in order to coordinate and manage the work from a central organization, and to provide systematic support to other organizations to develop restorative programs.
The core of Petra’s strategy is to unlock the potential of legal professionals (lawyers, judges, law professors, legislators, police and parole officers, prison, and social workers, etc.) to usher in restorative justice principles and practices. To achieve this, Petra designed a unique methodology that involves these professionals in workshops where they are able to imagine, experience, and commit to restorative justice practices. Rather than lecturing on restorative justice, she enables them to experience it by organizing them into restorative circles, where they learn to express and analyze their own motivations and emotions, listen to every voice with empathy, and engage in purposeful dialogue. In these circles, they learn by doing, “tasting” the power of restorative practices and engaging their imaginations to picture how applying them would change their workplace.
Through the process, professionals explore two fundamental questions. First, “What are the obstacles for Restorative Justice to develop further in your place of work (e.g., courtroom, prison, parole office, police station, etc.)?” Second, a question that leads to commitment: “What can I personally do now to further develop Restorative Justice in my place of work?” The answers to these questions serve a double purpose: on the one hand, they enable Petra and her team to collect key information and ideas about how Restorative Justice can be applied in different processes of the criminal justice system. This feeds their global strategy and gives them insights on how to continue to influence the system. On the other hand, the questions have a retroactive effect on the participants as they reignite their sense of purpose (often lost over the years in the rigid justice system) and acknowledge their personal power to implement changes, no matter how small they might be, in their daily practice, and improve the system. These workshops are only the tip of a spearheaded strategy: Petra is currently developing new rounds and versions of “circles” of professionals to address different questions while activating new professionals such as women’s rights activists, teachers, psychologists.
Two personal insights drive the development of this particular focus. First, as a lawyer herself, and a daughter and granddaughter of lawyers, Petra is keenly aware of the power legal professionals have to enable or block changes to the system they work in, as well as the deep desire many have to be agents of effective justice, despite the hardened and, at times, cynical passivity to change legal professionals often display outwardly. Secondly, although she was always attracted to restorative justice, it was participating in a restorative circle with other law students in a foreign country under Howard Zehr that ignited her own imagination. She developed deep connections with other students and felt the power to commit to transforming her surroundings. For legal professionals in particular, trained to do things by the book and place their emotions and personal motivations on the side, re-awakening their deeper desires and motivations through experience is fundamental.
Already, these circles are producing surprising results. The insights collected drive other key pieces of Petra’s strategy. For example, their circle responses showed that one of the main barriers to implementing restorative justice is a lack of practical ideas and examples of how it might work. Thus, Petra’s organization made it a priority to produce materials with practical examples and guides for lawyers and judges, including case-studies, testimonials, articles, and an upcoming exhaustive Restorative Justice Handbook on how restorative principles have been and can be applied in different settings. They also found that changing the goals and measured results of what is expected from justice (i.e., restoration vs. punishment) is fundamental to enabling professionals to practice these principles without having to sacrifice career advancement. For example, a key public performance metric for lawyers and judges is their speed at resolving cases, regardless of the effects of the sentence and process for the victim or offender, making it hard to provide the time and space for restorative dialogue to take place. For Petra, this presents a double challenge that they are taking on. On the one hand, they are identifying new performance metrics with lawyers and judges that include how victims feel during and after the judicial process and whether offenders have the opportunity to create their own plan to restoration to be included in a national plan and their advocacy efforts. On the other hand, and for their immediate needs, Petra is helping these professionals develop strategies now to achieve restorative goals while also meeting their speed requirements all at once through case studies and examples from successful professionals.
Regarding the participants themselves, many have already begun to implement restorative principles in their workplace, which Petra uses to feed new examples and changes back into the network. For example, some judges committed to speak differently to victims and families in the courtroom, intentionally asking them about their experience, what they felt (rather than dry facts) or what they would consider helpful for the offender to do in order to repair the damage done (which rarely includes extensive prison time). Others have implemented a restorative circle in their place of work, with colleagues, or a combination of colleagues and the people they serve (victims, inmates, etc.). Others are testing larger scale changes: one participating judge reported launching a restorative conference (where victims and offenders engage in mediated dialogue) for a particular case and described the creative ways he scheduled the process in between other cases in order to not slow down his resolution rate. Petra then packaged this experience as a case-study and fed it back to the circles as a new example of how implementation can work now as larger reforms are being worked out. In another case, a high-ranking official from prison services who participated in Petra’s workshops decided to carry out a nation-wide survey within prisons to raise awareness and measure openness to restorative principles. Petra’s team helped them build the survey and analyze the results (which involved over 250 individuals in the prison system) and will soon publish a detailed report, once again feeding new information from within the stakeholders’ group to the system.
Petra is very intentional at choosing the participants for her strategic working groups. Before launching them, she mapped out all the stakeholder groups engaged in criminal justice processes and the role they each played. She then chose key professionals from within those groups, including high ranking officials, some of whom she engaged further by inviting to become board members or serve as country representatives with her in international networks, so that their participation also served to build the global recognition and prestige of the Restorative Justice Institute. Participants include lawyers, judges, legal scholars, prison officials, probation and mediation officers, police officers, and non-profit leaders. Petra’s team has already run 10 of these workshops, reaching over 200 key stakeholders, nearly a third being high ranking leaders and officials, who also serve as aspirational examples for other participants. This way Petra is leveraging a relatively small number of professionals to reach thousands more through their work and leadership. With the information gathered and professionals engaged, Petra’s team is building a process for them to collaborate in designing a national strategy for bringing restorative justice to the Czech Republic, using a similar methodology of involvement and commitment from the professionals themselves. One of the key questions they are asking in circles now is, “What should Restorative Justice look like in the Czech context?” in order to shape an effective strategy that fits their cultural and systems particularities. Together, they are also designing some of the key metrics and tools they will be using to measure impact in the upcoming years, including surveys, number of criminal convictions and public cost, as well as recidivism rate changes, adapted to each of the agencies’ particular way of gathering data.
In addition to these specific workshops, Petra and her team also participate and lead a number of conferences and networks throughout the country and Eastern Europe to raise awareness amongst professionals in the sector about restorative justice. For example, Petra has developed an ongoing partnership to spread the word and train legal professionals with the Society for Criminology, which has 300 top professionals in its membership and reaches thousands through conferences, publications, and other programs. She is also reaching law students and scholars directly, having established Restorative Justice as a subject and department in the two top law schools in the country, with its particular classes (with over 45 students enrolled every year, who learn through creating and participating in restorative circles) and publishing academic research. Beyond the Czech Republic, Petra participates in a number of international networks of like-minded professionals, including the European Project “Restorative Justice: Strategies for Change” with another 10 countries, to share best practices, learn from others, and develop partnerships to help launch similar initiatives in other central and eastern European countries with a similar context, or the European Forum for Restorative Justice and the International Platform on Reducing Violence, Crime and Incarceration of the Salzburg Global seminar, where she has leading and coordination roles.
To support the transformation these professionals are already creating and to build legislative and procedural foundations for structural shifts, Petra is developing several resources, tools, and materials to enable Restorative Justice principles to be put into practice. These include academic publications – including Petra’s own book, Restorative Approaches to Resolve Crime, published in 2019 – that pave the way for restorative justice to be legislated, case studies and examples on how restorative practices are being implemented already, or an upcoming comprehensive Restorative Justice Handbook, translating and adapting particular practices from around the world. Although Petra and her team produce a number of these materials directly, they are also leveraging their networks and participating professionals to write, produce and share materials, and thus establish a broader base to legitimize a pathway towards a structural transformation of the system as a whole.
Another key aspect of Petra’s strategy is to support and empower other organizations to design and launch their own restorative justice programs. Although immediate impact would be quicker if Petra’s organization built its own program for a particular segment of the justice system, they are taking the long view, understanding that initiatives will be much more impactful and sustainable if they are implemented from within the organizations and agencies themselves. Thus, Petra has developed an area in the Restorative Justice Institute to support other entities and networks to build their own programs and help them find resources and funding. They are currently providing support to entities such as the Probation and Mediation Services (who were already running their own program and are now collaborating together), the Police Academy, the Justice Academy, and a number of citizen sector organizations, some which work from surprising angles, such as Zivot 90, an organization for the elderly that is developing a restorative program for victims of elderly abuse. Petra is also creating a few key direct impact programs for victims and people who have committed serious crimes to prove its effectiveness and provide guides for others to follow. By engaging all these organizations, she is enabling a strong ecosystem that connects all these professionals to work together and develop shared goals both to implement now, and to advocate for structural changes.
This strategy is also having an impact beyond Czech borders, as it reaches organizations and legal professionals from nearby countries, such as Slovakia, with similar contexts who are asking for support to launch similar initiatives in their countries.
In its two years of existence, Petra’s organization has gone beyond their own impact expectations. Over these two years, they have engaged deeply with 500 professionals, doubling their own goals, either through their “restorative circle” workshops or other key partnerships such as with the Society for Criminology with over 300 members actively supporting the initiative. Petra is also reaching hundreds more every year through courses (over 250 people have gone through restorative justice seminars), workshops, and conferences she and her team participate in regularly. The organization itself has also grown to over 12 staff and secured the first international funding in the country for restorative justice (both from private and public institutions), as well as national funding that has helped them lock in an initial $100,000 USD yearly budget to get started as they also build other fundraising strategies, potentially involving the professionals they are serving. The Restorative Justice Institute has also become an important online repository of resources which is regularly accessed by professionals and has consolidated funding, achieving the first international grants for restorative justice in the Czech Republic. With the results of the restorative circles and the network built, Petra is now developing a national strategy along with these key actors, which includes specific advocacy and legislative framework changes, adapted to the Czech Republic. To support a broader mindset change, the Restorative Justice Institute has also developed a number of resources that will be released throughout the year, including a handbook on restorative practices, a documentary, and illustrated books for families. Petra’s ongoing aim is to capacitate a tipping number of professionals within the criminal justice system to push for a broad reform, bolstered by a mindset shift in the general public, aware of new and more effective ways of carrying out justice.
Throughout the past year, Petra was able to spend more time on building collaborations. She and other team members found their spots at the advisory meetings of Ministry of Justice and other organizations working in the field. This time was also used to deal with a wider range of crimes. The team has focused more on cases of murder and robbery in the first years, but they are now dealing with cases of rape, physical assault, sexual assault, and so on thanks to the partnerships built with institutions in these fields.
Petra comes from a family of lawyers (her mother and grandfather both practiced law) where conversations about justice and what causes criminal behavior were always present and interesting to her. As a young law student, two experiences ignited her imagination towards a different approach to justice: on the one hand, she engaged in a multi-stakeholder approach to study and propose solutions for female mutilation where she saw the power of bringing different perspectives together for common goals; on the other hand, she was introduced to Restorative Justice by her uncle, who founded Probation and Mediation Service in the Czech Republic in the 1990s: he described it as a world without lawyers, where instead communities came together to support victims and restore people who commit crimes. This led her to explore restorative justice in her academic journey and test the principles in her work with non-profits as a potential tool to transform to the criminal justice system. Along the journey, she was also able to study with Howard Zehr, who coined the concept, where she experienced a significant shift within her own perspectives and felt the power of restorative practices in learning-by-doing. This has been a key principle in her approach to create spaces and experiences for all stakeholders to personally “taste” restorative methodologies and become convinced deep from within.
Over the years, Petra tested a number of approaches to apply restorative principles to the justice system, moving throughout academic, non-profit, and professional spheres instead of working with just one group. For example, she knew that getting restorative justice into law schools was key, so students could become familiar with this option when they started practicing law, so she started teaching law and introduced restorative justice as a key subject. Realizing this was not enough, she began contributing to envisioning and launching programs in other contexts such as non-profits, or the Probation and Mediation Service. Although they had important successes, their lack of budget and influence in the system as a whole led her to drop all non-restorative justice related work (e.g. teaching general law classes) and instead dedicate her time to involving all the key parts within the criminal justice system to build towards a larger transformation.
Petra’s diverse professional background (she has worked in non-profits such as Children in Need and People in Need, as a trial lawyer, and also within the academy) and wide range of interests is also an important factor in her ability to weave networks with different stakeholders. She’s convinced that restorative principles are the key to build consensus with such different actors, allowing all to be heard and develop empathy towards others. When others in this network speak about Petra, they remark on her ability to bring people together and, like “an energetic sun,” spreads bright enthusiasm to everyone around her, developing synergies that others hadn’t imagined before.