Restorative Justice

The Bigger Picture on Restorative Justice

By Anabel Unity Sale

Restorative justice is a key component to the government’s approach to tackling youth crime.

Since 1 April 2002 in England and Wales, under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, the courts issue referral orders to first-time young offenders aged 10 to 17 who admit their offence. The orders are based on restorative justice and last for between three and 12 months. They aim to help young offenders take responsibility for their behaviour and nip their criminal activity in the bud. A youth offender panel facilitates the work with the young offender over the life of the order. The panel is made up of a member of the youth offending team and two lay people from the local community.

The panel draws up a contract with the young offender and their parent or guardian detailing what action they will take to make amends for their offending behaviour. The restorative process of the referral order agreed by the panel can happen in a number of ways, including:

* Victim offender mediation – this is where the two parties meet face to face, facilitated by a mediator, but without any other participants
* Restorative conferencing – the victim and offender, along with their families/supporters, and sometimes members of the community meet. This is similar to family group conferencing, but this process gives the family and offender time to discuss the way forward, separate from the main meeting
* Indirect mediation – this is contact where an offender and a victim do not come face to face but communicate through a mediator

The Home Office says it supports restorative justice because “it can help victims, putting them at the centre of the justice process” and reduces reoffending rates by “holding the offender to account”.

Final say

The national charity Victim Support believes restorative justice can benefit those victims who want to become involved in it. Many victims of crime have a psychological need for information after a crime in order to make sense of their experience. This is often something only the offender can provide them with. A Victim Support spokesperson says the victim should have the final say as to whether or not to accept reparation, compensation or any contact with the offender.

In Hertfordshire between 1 April 2002 and 31 March this year youth courts issued a total of 456 referral orders to young offenders. Of these, 38 per cent of orders did not contain any direct contact between the victim and the young offender and 10 per cent had face-to-face meetings. During this period 45 young people returned to the youth courts, either because they had re-offended or they had refused to comply with their referral order.

Hertfordshire Youth Justice Service referral order panel co-ordinator Kevin Jones says that young offenders are often quite scared of meeting their victims, as they fear the other person may use violence to resolve the situation.

Reduce fear

But once young offenders and their victims do meet up their feedback is very positive, for both parties. Jones says young offenders tell him that their meeting went better than they anticipated and victims report they are able to reduce their fear of crime. He says: “Victims feel better when they discover it was a four foot two inches snivelling boy that went through their house instead of a giant of a man.”

In 2001 the Scottish Executive awarded funding of nearly £1 million to a new restorative justice service for young offenders aged under 16 being operated by Glasgow Council. The initiative went live in August this year, making Glasgow the first Scottish city to run such a scheme. In Scotland children’s panels, part of the children’s hearing systems, deal with young offenders.

So far the children’s panel has referred 300 young offenders to Glasgow’s scheme. Of these, 80 per cent were male and 75 per cent were aged 12 to 15. The local authority anticipates working with 2,000 young offenders every year under the new system, which may require young offenders to meet their victims.

Three stages

Glasgow’s restorative justice scheme has three stages designed to address the different levels of offending. The first level is a restorative caution, designed to look at the reasons for offending and hopefully move the young offender away from this type of behaviour. The second level involves a conference with the young offender, their family and the victim of the crime – much in the same way referral orders in England and Wales operate. The final stage is aimed at young offenders who have racked up three or four offences. They will attend a four-week course designed to challenge their behaviour and stop re-offending.

The first round of referrals to Glasgow’s scheme has been completed and councillor Deirdre Gaughan, Glasgow Council spokesperson for community safety, says the initial feedback has been “very good”. She says that such an approach is not “a panacea for youth crime”, but believes it will become a valuable part of the criminal justice system in Scotland.

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