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Through an approach called restorative justice, former probation officer Mike Batley is shifting the focus of the South African justice system from punishment and onto addressing harm and the root causes of crime.

This profile below was prepared when Mike Batley was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.


Through an approach called restorative justice, former probation officer Mike Batley is shifting the focus of the South African justice system from punishment and onto addressing harm and the root causes of crime.


South Africa remains a hotbed for violent crime, with notably high rates of repeat offenders. As a probation officer and social worker, Mike became aware of the need to focus on the root causes of crime in order to try to prevent recidivism and to address the often-overlooked needs of victims. He realized that the other players in the justice system (notably magistrates, judges, prosecutors, lawyers) did not share the same focus—they were uninterested in external circumstances unrelated to simply determining guilt and punishment. A close look at root causes needed to be part of the whole system, not just the aspects focused on rehabilitation. After being exposed to the emerging international movement of restorative justice through a pilot project in 1996, Mike began to see this as a framework that brought the above issues together within a well articulated value system. He became passionate about its potential application in South Africa and began to work at mainstreaming it into the existing system, thereby fundamentally changing the way the justice system actually deals with crime. The concept of restorative justice focuses not on guilt and punishment but understanding the circumstances of crime and how best to address the needs of victims. The process also brings in the community around both the victim and the offender, making the responsibility for crime more collective—not just in the hands of the overburdened, bureaucratic justice system. A key process is called “conferencing” which is a form of conflict resolution. The focus of conferencing is on creating an environment in which offenders can accept responsibility and through discussion with the victim find ways of “righting the wrong” and preventing recurrence. Once an agreement has been reached, forgiveness and healing begin in earnest. Mike realized that such an approach could both complement and serve as an alternative to the current system. In addition to the direct services to victims and offenders and strategies like conferencing, Mike crafted strategies such as skill development to increase offender competency, which is enacted through community-issued sanctions and monitoring.


In spite of South Africa's peaceful transition into a legitimate democracy and the establishment of progressive policies, millions of South Africans still have not experienced the lasting benefits of these historic changes. A very high level of poverty and unemployment persists in a context of broad social change, and crime rates remain alarmingly high. For certain types of crimes, South Africa’s crime rate ranks among the highest in the world. According to Interpol, murder rates per 100,000 people are 59 in South Africa, as opposed to six in the U.S., nine in Zimbabwe and 18 in Swaziland.

In common with most western countries, the South African criminal justice system has dealt with crime by punishing offenders, in part to deter more crime. However this approach has not worked. Statistics indicate that between 50 to 90 percent of prisoners return to criminal behavior after release. The return of these criminals to jail puts enormous pressure on an already overburdened Justice and Correctional Services systems.  

The system perpetuates high crime in three ways. First, it offers very little to victims, the people who have been directly affected by an incident. The entire process of a trial as well as its outcome is oriented around the offender. Sentences, whether imprisonment, fine, or community service, do not benefit the victim at all. Second, high recidivism indicates that the system blatantly fails to deter crime. Third, the existing model does not take into account the underlying factors that cause crime. Consequently, poverty, unemployment, and access to basic services are not part of the solution to dealing with crime, even though they are recognized as contributing factors to the problem. As a result, together with HIV and Aids and unemployment, crime is among the most serious challenges threatening the consolidation of democracy in South Africa.


Mike is working on all sides of the justice system to change its approach to crime prevention, treatment, and ongoing healing. His strategy through the Restorative Justice Center (RJC) encompasses direct services such as conferencing, victim support, life-skills programs, advising courts on sentencing, training community members in the method of restorative justice, a research and advocacy component that encourages government support, and powerful partnerships within the citizen sector to advance the new justice paradigm.

The work of RJC provides practical ways in which justice can be experienced as healing for all concerned parties, rather than the destructive response that is so often the result. The goal is to make the justice system a tool for building communities and developing the society. As such, it also serves to strengthen South Africa’s young democracy by promoting autonomy and participation.

RJC deals with cases in and outside the courts. Most referrals are received from prosecutors and magistrates. Out of court, cases come to RJC through public-awareness events which communicate the concept of restorative justice.

One application of restorative justice is to bring victims and offenders together in a form of mediation and conflict resolution called conferencing. This happens outside of the justice system and involves relevant community members. During conferencing the parties have the opportunity to explore the consequences and implications of the incident, why it occurred, what is necessary to put the wrong right and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. Following international practice, Mike has developed a format which allows the RJC to facilitate and manage the conferencing process. Staff members are trained to manage cases of all kinds. In addition to the conferencing and dialogue intervention, Mike partners with other citizen organizations to provide post-conferencing support to address the psychological, cultural, economic, and social factors that contribute to crime and link to other social services. Religious organizations are particularly important in this equation. All of these partnerships provide resources to collaborate with the criminal justice system on the handling of specific cases.

The courts also refer cases directly to the RJC to work within the court process at various stages. Before trial, RJC’s intervention acts as an alternative to going to court, and is used in matters where it is not appropriate to prosecute, such as with child offenders. This relieves the overburdened system of a good number of cases right away; further, since its responses are sustainable, the court is less likely to see that offender again. After a trial but before sentencing, conferencing may be used and integrated into a sentence. After sentencing, RJC doesn’t have any impact on the legal outcome but focuses on the ongoing needs of both victim and offender. RJC’s latest stage strategy works with convicted offenders already in prison.  

Mike’s program has gained increasing recognition within the government and criminal justice system. Shortcomings are being exposed and acknowledged, and these bodies are increasingly warming to the idea of restorative justice. There is already explicit commitment from the Departments of Correctional Services, Justice, the Association of Regional Magistrates, the Justice College, and the National Prosecuting Authority. In addition, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission and judges from the Constitutional Court and various High Courts have endorsed the work of the RJC. Mike is capitalizing on this window of opportunity to establish the role of citizen organizations as primary service providers in this field and for this to be fully recognized and supported by all government departments.

To further integrate restorative justice into the system, Mike has developed a workshop on the principles and application of restorative justice for the key players: magistrates, prosecutors, and probation officers. The RJC has successfully piloted and conducted training in all provinces. A research and advocacy component of RJC, based on findings of the conferencing, feeds back into the training and workshops. Mike is also using some of this research to show the impact of his approach to government and other policy bodies. Finally, the RJC also works in schools and community centers, putting the model squarely in the hands of the community and proving that restorative justice is not limited to crimes that are part of the formal justice system, but applies to conflict more broadly.          


Mike grew up in a strong Roman Catholic family which influenced his choice of career and instilled in him family values. He embarked on a career as a social worker, and in 1988 accepted a position as a probation officer in the public sector. He played an active role in a professional body for social workers, facilitating its transformation to a trade union. During these years Mike gained a better understanding of the role and significance of civil society to address social issues. Dealing with clients, their communities, and the systems they moved through, he realized that a broken justice system was inhibiting the alleviation of poverty and other social ills. He saw that the justice system was unhealthy for society, but bureaucracy made it difficult to change from within. When he learned about restorative justice, Mike saw the opportunity for a strategy that could change the system by working in tandem, outside, and within it through integration and proper design. Mike set up the Restorative Justice Center and has since worked tirelessly to establish it as a leader in transforming South Africa’s criminal justice system.