What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice (RJ) is a way of making reparation to victims by seeking to address the harm caused by crime. RJ balances the concerns and rights of the victim and the community with the need to reintegrate the offender into society. It is a process where everyone with a stake in a particular offence has a chance to communicate, and collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the crime.
RJ involves contact between the victim and the offender, either face-to-face or indirectly, either in writing or through a mediator. It gives victims of crime the opportunity to tell the offender about the effects of the crime they have suffered and to ask questions about the offence. It gives the offender a chance to understand the impact of their crime, apologise, and take action to repair the harm caused. This could include direct reparation, such as replacing stolen property and repairing damage, or reparation to the wider community through charity or voluntary work.
RJ can be very beneficial for victims. Home Office research shows that 85 per cent of victims who took part in a type of RJ called ‘conferencing’ were satisfied with the experience. Almost nine out of ten would recommend the process to other victims.
Key to the success of RJ is that all parties give informed consent to participate and the offender accepts responsibility for the crime.
What's the problem?
- At present, less than 1% of victims of crime are offered restorative justice, despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that taking part can help people move on from the experience of being a victim.
- There are various small scale RJ projects across the country (some of which Victim Support is involved in) but the type and quality of RJ on offer is inconsistent. The Restorative Justice Council’s best practice guidance for restorative practice should be the national standard for all RJ.
- RJ should be an important element of the youth justice system, but many youth offending teams are still failing to properly involve victims in referral order panels.
- Police forces use RJ for out of court disposals, but their approaches across the country are inconsistent.
- RJ is not routinely used in serious crime but there is strong evidence for its effectiveness.
- The Government’s green paper, Breaking the Cycle, is positive about RJ but lacks detail on how it will be delivered and implemented, and what if any commissioning standards will be in place.
- Early forms of RJ were sometimes focused more on benefits to the offender. Thankfully this has changed to recognise that RJ can and must benefit victims and the community too. But some perceptions remain that it is mainly for, and about, offenders.
What's the solution?
- Every victim should be offered a choice of restorative justice and be able to choose an approach that is right for them.
- RJ is not suitable for all victims, and full risk assessment must be undertaken in complex cases, especially those of domestic violence. While there is evidence to suggest that RJ can be effective in domestic violence cases, it must be approached with caution.
- All victims must be properly supported throughout the process by fully trained RJ practitioners working to regulated national standards.
- RJ must never be conducted ‘on the cheap’. RJ programmes must be fully funded and run to high a standard. Police, youth offending teams and others should use consistent evidence-based approaches which work and prevent reoffending.
- RJ should be available to victims at any point in the criminal justice process, including before and after a trial. Victim Support is supporting a pilot called Restorative Justice Gloucestershire which is trying to make restorative justice available to victims of crime there by September 2011.
- Analysis by Victim Support and the Restorative Justice Council found that if RJ was provided presentence for victims of serious offences (burglary, robbery and violent offences) it would save criminal justice agencies £185 million just through reducing re-offending.
- Furthermore, trials of restorative justice conferences have been shown to give sentencing magistrates and judges better information about effective sentencing options. Working with the Restorative Justice Council, we estimate that pre-sentence RJ could also generate a saving of 11,000 full-year prison places - the equivalent to saving £410 million of the prison budget.
The work of Victim Support in Ingatestone is a model of good practice in the area of youth justice. Victim Support caseworkers receive referrals for final warnings, referral orders and youth rehabilitation orders from four Youth Offending Teams in Essex. The caseworkers are responsible for all aspects of victim involvement to ensure that victims are properly integrated into the youth justice system – for example, contacting and supporting victims, explaining the RJ process, risk assessing, and accompanying or representing victims at panel meetings. At the end of its first year, 510 referrals were received and 180 victims participated in the RJ process. A third of victims attended a face-to-face meeting with the offender. One hundred per cent of victims were satisfied with the process; with 95 per cent being very or extremely satisfied.