Restorative justice is slowly making its mark in the UK. It requires offenders to acknowledge the impact of what they have done and to make some form of reparation either to the victim or to the community. Devon-based Exmouth Youth Offending Partnership, winner of the young offenders’ category in the Community Care Awards 2003, shows what can be achieved when the principles of restorative justice are at the heart of work with young offenders.
The project involves Exmouth Headway, a centre for people who have acquired brain injuries, and Exeter East and Mid Devon Youth Offending Team. Under the partnership, a young offender, who has been involved in an offence that could have caused a brain injury, can be asked as part of their referral order to visit Exmouth Headway. “They might have stolen a car and crashed or have been involved in an assault or fighting,” says Jacquie Howatson, restorative justice co-ordinator at Exeter East and Mid Devon YOT. “The aim is to get them to take responsibility for their actions.”
Mike Hughes, Exmouth Headway centre manager, recalls how “some of the service users were genuinely afraid that all sorts of ‘yobs’ would come through the front door” when he first suggested the idea of young offenders visiting the centre. Some had acquired brain injuries in violent incidents so it was not surprising that they were anxious about meeting young people who had committed similar offences. Despite their fears they agreed to go ahead with the first visit and “what they saw were two young men who were nervous, unsure and quite defensive”, says Hughes.
The project has developed a format for the visits. The young person is welcomed to the centre by Hughes who stresses that they do not have to stay and that they can leave at any time; it’s all voluntary and confidential. “This reduces their defensiveness,” says Hughes. They are then introduced to the service users where they are “put at ease”.
Hughes believes that honesty is essential and does not prevent service users expressing their views. He says: “There are some service users who tell them they should be in prison. But there’s no preaching, no ‘you’re bad boys and this is what’s going to happen to you if you carry on as you were’. We simply tell them what Headway is about, the astonishingly simple ways that people can acquire brain injuries and the devastating, life-changing effects they have.”
There follows a closed session with two service users “who simply tell their stories: what they ‘were’ before their brain injury, how it happened and how it’s affected them. It’s the simplicity that makes it powerful.”
One young offender, several months after visiting Headway, approached a service user in the supermarket to reassure them that he had listened to what was said and that he now avoided confrontation and tried to prevent his friends becoming involved. Nearly all of the 20 or so people who have visited Headway have not reoffended.
Howatson says: “It really does open their eyes to how easy it is to acquire a brain injury and does affect their behaviour in a positive way. It sensitises them and helps them empathise with their victims, which has to happen if they are to take meaningful responsibility for their actions.”
Headway service users also benefit from this project. Hughes says: “This project turns victims into survivors – that’s the key change. Self-esteem and self-confidence are also improving. They’ve taken the view that they are giving something to the community and improving the lot of young people.”
The project was delighted to win the award. Howatson says: “We’re a small group of people working together in a little corner of England and to get national recognition for the work we’re doing is fantastic.”
Headway Exmouth will use the £5,000 prize to spread the word locally and “to get to young people before they become offenders”, says Hughes. “The expansion is in its infancy but the local partnership with the YOT is rock solid and will continue.”