A sorry case

Restorative justice is the key to the government’s strategy for
cutting youth crime. Charles Pollard explains how it was used in
the case of a 15-year-old victim of assault and his attackers.

Imagine that four teenage boys have subjected you to a serious
physical assault that leaves you bleeding and unconscious.
Thankfully they are caught, but instead of sending them to court
the police contact you to ask if you would like to meet the boys to
discuss what has happened?

This was the situation that Michael, a 15-year-old from
Berkshire, faced earlier this year. On the day of the attack
Michael had travelled with his friend Ian to meet Ian’s girlfriend
Emma, outside her school. They were chatting with Emma when a group
of boys from the school noticed Michael and Ian – outsiders on
“their” territory – and an argument ensued.

Michael and Ian left, but later when they were waiting for Emma
outside her house they were confronted again by the boys from the
school – by now in a gang of nearly 20. Ian took refuge in the
house but Michael faced up to them. Things got heated and Michael
was grabbed by one of the group while three others laid into him.
They all watched as Michael was punched around the face before
running off, leaving him unconscious on the pavement. Someone
called an ambulance and he was taken to hospital.

The four boys directly responsible for the attack were
apprehended following a police investigation. The assault had left
Michael severely bruised around the face and charges of grievous
bodily harm were initially considered, which would for sure have
meant a court appearance. The boys had quickly admitted their
involvement however, and were very remorseful for what had

As the true nature of the incident emerged – that of a
playground argument that had got seriously out of hand – the lesser
charge of actual bodily harm was deemed more appropriate. A meeting
was arranged between the four boys, together with their parents and
a specially trained police officer, for new-style juvenile “final
warnings” to be delivered.

Michael and his family were also invited to attend the meeting –
Michael had been very upset by the incident and it was felt that by
giving him the opportunity to meet his attackers, in a safe
environment, and hear their explanation of events, his concerns
might be eased.

The meeting took place at the local police station. Michael
attended, still bearing scars, with his parents, sister and aunt.
Three of the boys attended with their fathers – the fourth had been
due to attend but was delayed. The police officer started by asking
the three boys to account for what had happened and how they felt
about it. Michael was then encouraged to recount the incident from
his point of view. In turn Michael’s relatives were given the
opportunity to express their views, as well as the three boys’
fathers who were clearly rocked by photos of Michael’s injuries,
having not realised the seriousness of the assault.

The boys showed genuine remorse over the incident, apologising
to Michael and assuring everyone that they would not bother him
again. A written agreement was also reached, signed by the boys,
whereby they undertook to pay Michael £29 each, by the end of
the following month, to replace a pair of trousers torn during the
attack as well as a mobile phone they had broken.

The meeting ended after two hours with everybody shaking hands
and chatting together. The fourth boy reached the same agreement
during a meeting with a police officer the following week. All four
boys made their payments, via the local police station, within the
allotted timescale.

Discussions of this kind between victims and offenders –
so-called restorative conferences – are one method of putting into
practice the principles of restorative justice. In recent years
restorative justice has been gaining increasing currency as an
entirely new approach to dealing with crime.

Restorative justice principles can be applied in many different
ways but the common objectives are firstly that victims are given
the opportunity, should they so wish, to be involved in the process
in a way that is not possible in the existing criminal justice
system, and secondly that offenders give an account of their
actions themselves, as opposed to via an advocate who might try to
reduce or mitigate their responsibility. As a result offenders are
confronted effectively with the impact of what they have done to
others, and are held directly to account for the consequences.

The outcome is often deep remorse, an apology to the victim, an
offer to make amends in some way – financially or otherwise – which
is agreed in writing and monitored, and some careful reflection on
their future. The victim in turn has the opportunity to hear first
hand how the offence came about, dispelling any myths they may have
held about the offender, and the effect is usually one of
considerable reassurance allowing the incident to be put behind

Michael feels he benefited greatly from attending the meeting –
his fears about going out have eased – and to date none of his
attackers have been in any further trouble. Interestingly when one
of them visited the police station to pay his share of the money he
asked for some advice about how to deal peaceably with another boy
who had been taunting him at school.

Studies have indicated that a key factor contributing towards
successful restorative justice is the skill and experience of those
facilitating meetings. There is also evidence that when conducted
properly, restorative justice can significantly reduce reoffending
and provide much higher levels of satisfaction among victims of
crime. In short it offers a “win-win” situation as it shows how we
can significantly reduce crime in the future if we expand
restorative justice and mainstream its methods.

Sir Charles Pollard is chief constable of Thames Valley

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