With rising numbers of children being criminalised for minor offences, some youth offending teams have begun using restorative justice to prevent these types of cases being referred to the police. Salford Council’s YOT is one of those pioneering this approach.
It launched its prevention service in 2002 specifically to work with eight- to 16-year-olds at risk of antisocial behaviour and crime. Initially funded for £65,000 for 12 months, its success has seen it continue and grow.
In 2006, the initiative, backed by the local authority’s children’s services, won funding from the Youth Justice Board to expand its work to help prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system.
Now it works to ensure young people in care, those at risk of exclusion from school or who are causing concern in their local communities can take part in restorative justice meetings. This is achieved by training practitioners – ranging from residential care home staff to teachers – in how to facilitate meetings between the wrongdoer and the harmed person, as Salford YOT’s prevention manager Pauline Copeland (right) terms them.
She says it is important to differentiate between the “wrongdoer” and the “harmed person” although both are victims. For her, the purpose of restorative justice is simple: “It is about repairing harm and rebuilding relationships, as well as giving people a voice in the community. Young people need to explain why they’ve done what they have and those they harmed need to know what happened to the young person next.”
Copeland oversees the training of facilitators to deliver restorative justice conferencing. So far, 75 people have been trained as facilitators in six secondary schools and two primary schools, and 70 other staff have been trained in the overall process across Salford.
Her eight-strong team works with clients for however long it takes for them to go through the process. It may be a few weeks or longer if the young person receives a custodial or community sentence.
The approach has led to reduced reoffending rates: between May 2006-June 2007, 13 restorative justice conferences took place and about half of young people have not reoffended.
Copeland says the young people who meet those they have harmed benefit from the experience. “Young people who go through this are braver than a lot of us they have to face the person they have hurt. The young people are sorry and want to say so.”
During the process the individual who has been harmed is supported by Barbara Howell, who joined Salford YOT as victim services co-ordinator in April 2006. She says those individuals who decide to meet the perpetrator have an overwhelmingly positive experience: “They tell us ‘we didn’t realise how remorseful the young person is, and how it’s impacted on their carers’. It acts as closure for them and they can put a face to the young person, they don’t have horns and a forked tail,” says Howell.
A Home Office evaluation of the YOT’s work is pending. But the service is aiming to train three more professionals to become trainers, as well as train local youth service and neighbourhood management teams in the approach.
Sam (not his real name), Year 10 pupil, Manchester
Sam is a year 10 pupil at a Manchester secondary school. Six months ago he and his mother went through a restorative justice conference arranged by his school’s learning mentor and led by Barbara Howell.
During the year before Sam and his mother had argued regularly which had led to his mother hitting him on occasion. He felt angry about what was happening at home and this came out in his disruptive behaviour at school: “I’d get sent out of class or walk out. I’d punch the wall, mirrors, anything I could get my hands on.”
At the hour-long meeting Sam, his mum and all the practitioners discussed what had been happening and agreed what was and wasn’t acceptable behaviour for the parent and child. Sam found taking part very beneficial: “I thought I didn’t want to talk to strangers about it but afterwards it was a good idea because I’d been feeling a lot of stress.”
He says his mum also learned from the process: “My mum said it was a good idea and that made me feel good.”