It is as though I am back in my college years, spending my semester abroad. This fall I am living in the beautiful city of Leuven, Belgium, a city of about 100,000 people and located about twenty miles outside of Brussels. I am teaching at the Catholic University of Leuven Law School’s Criminology Institute where there is a vibrant and well-known restorative justice department. A group of professors here, led by highly respected Dr. Ivo Aertsen, as well as many Ph.D. students and researchers, are examining and writing about the impact of restorative justice programs in many different countries and cultures.
The university was founded in 1425, making it the oldest Catholic university in the world. There are 40,000 students here (and I think they all ride bicycles). I also have the privilege of living in what is called the Groot Beginjnof (or for us French speakers “the Grand Beguinage.”) In about 1325, groups of women from the Low Countries decided to create their own religious communities and build small towns in which they lived. They were strong, independent women who did not want to attach themselves to religious orders (and wanted to maintain control over their personal finances rather than give them to the Catholic Church).
All the communities of women are gone, as are many of the buildings they lived in. However, some of the beguinages have remained and now have become World Heritage sites. Fifty years ago, the university in Leuven had the foresight to purchase the buildings here and turn them into apartments for visiting international faculty members. I have a lovely studio apartment located amidst what looks like an ancient monastery, with cobblestone streets and a meandering river. In fact this picture is of a house just around the corner from my apartment.
Since Leuven is a Flemish-speaking town, I am fortunate that the programs I am working in all are taught in English. Although my Belgian mother was Flemish, I never mastered the language. My French can be quite useful in southern Belgium and Brussels, but people in Flanders refuse to speak it.
The development of restorative justice applications in Belgium is amazing. The federal government funds much of this work in a variety of criminal justice settings. Since 1994, federal regulations have governed what is called “penal mediation”, which is facilitated through prosecutors’ offices. Those mediations occur in the midst of the criminal court proceedings and can impact how the prosecutor decides to proceed.
Since 2001, Belgium has offered victim-offender mediations after offenders have been incarcerated. In 2005, the federal law provided that every person who has a direct interest can request mediation at any stage of the criminal procedure.” Art. 553, sex. 2 of the Belgian Code of Criminal Procedure. Like most places, any mediation that occurs needs to be voluntarily agreed to by all parties. Finally in 2006 the Belgian Youth Protection Act recognized and encouraged mediation and sentencing circles in juvenile cases.
Of course, despite much legislative recognition, many in the system have not “bought into” the restorative approach of addressing the harm caused by crime. The University of Leuven has provided incredible research support analyzing the implementation and outcomes of these various processes in Belgium as well as in the greater European community. When restorative justice processes are done well, the outcomes are almost always favorable.
Just a few of the university’s recent research projects included:
• Meeting the Challenges of Introducing Victim-Offender Mediation in Central and Eastern Europe
• Developing Standards for Assistance to Victims of Terrorism
• Mass Victimization and Restorative Justice. In Search for the Possibilities to Apply Restorative Justice Principles In An Integrated Approach…Case Studies in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia
• Mediation and Community Oriented Measures in Cases of Hate Crime and Discrimination
• Victims and Restorative Justice: An Empirical Study of the Needs, Experiences and Position of Victims Within Restorative Justice Practices
• The Development of a Theoretical frame for “Restorative Justice” From An Ethical and Social Perspective
To spend a semester as part of a highly respected academic community studying the global impact of restorative justice programs in a myriad of settings has been sheer joy for me. I look forward to returning to Marquette Law School next semester with a newly ignited excitement of our work with the Restorative Justice Initiative and the possibilities for things to come.