Faith restored in criminal justice?

When people are asked what values should drive sentencing, those
that rank highly are apologising and paying back. Yet the
day-to-day work of cops, courts and corrections all too often loses
sight of what should be the guiding principles for responding to

This could all change if the government’s strategy for restorative
justice, published for consultation last week, is turned into
action. The strategy aims to maximise the use of restorative
justice by building on initiatives in youth justice that bring
victims and offenders together, and by expanding their use as an
alternative to prosecution and sentencing options for adults.

In Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, victim offender mediation,
restorative conferencing or family group conferencing play a much
more central role in decision-making for juveniles and adults than
they do here. A growing body of evidence shows that these
approaches can meet victims’ needs more effectively than
conventional criminal justice and reduce reoffending, particularly
in serious and violent cases. So what is needed for restorative
justice to move from the margins to the mainstream in England and

First, we need to find ways to involve more victims than is now the
case. Victims participate directly in fewer than one in six youth
offender panels and diversion conferences for juveniles – in
Australia the rate is 70 per cent. While there is scope for
indirect involvement – by letter, or proxy – much of the impact of
restorative justice flows from the face-to-face contact and
expression of feelings about the crime. Developing a model victims
want to take part in must be a priority.

Second, we need to decide who should run restorative justice
schemes and build the necessary capacity. The police have played a
key role in developments so far in the UK, but there are concerns
about value and whether they are properly independent.

Finally, we must be clear about the extent to which restorative
justice meetings decide what happens to offenders or merely make
recommendations for the courts to consider. It is important to
decide the extent to which an offender’s fate should hang on the
victim’s willingness to forgive them – an agreement between an
offender and victim will not always satisfy all that the public
interest demands. After all, what defines a crime is that someone
has done wrong as well as harm.

Rob Allen is director of Rethinking Crime and Punishment, a
strategic initiative of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, an
independent grant-making body.

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