Exploring alternatives

by May 28, 2012 No Comments

Assessing the value of restorative justice 

If Scottish Government plans to reverse the country’s expanding prison population are to be realised, it is clear alternatives to previous methods of tackling offending have to be found.

A sanction increasingly being used around the world is restorative justice, which in its most common form, involves offenders meeting with their victims to apologise and see first-hand the extent of the crime.

It is being more widely used in Scotland, but critics have said it has not been rolled out quickly enough and to cover a wide range of offences.

The London-based Restorative Justice Council said the process gives victims the chance to tell offenders the real impact of their crime, to get answers to their questions, and an apology.

The council said every pound spent on the scheme could save nine through reducing offending. A Ministry of Justice evaluation found 85 per cent of victims were satisfied with their restorative justice experience, and reoffending rates were reduced by 27 per cent where the technique was employed.

But critics claim it can be a soft option when dealing with offenders who traditionally would receive a custodial sentence.

It is hoped the practice will be rolled out further across Scotland, where the Government has already imposed a presumption against custodial sentences of less than three months in favour of community-based disposals.

Tom Halpin, chief executive of Sacro, the community justice voluntary organisation, hopes to see an expansion of restorative justice in Scotland.

He said: “An important role of the criminal justice system is to assist offenders deal with the demons in their life – as is being successfully achieved with Drug Treatment and Testing Orders.

“You understand that effective community justice cannot be a soft option if an offender is to rebuild self-respect and re-establish acceptance, inside a community that they know they have damaged. For some offenders, repairing that harm they know they have caused is a demon they want to address, to have the opportunity to payback.

“But this is not only about making offenders feel better about themselves, more importantly, this is also a need expressed by many victims who in some cases have a need or desire to see and hear reparation being done for the harm caused to them.

“Restorative practices in a justice system is one element that offers people who want to say sorry, to do so in a safe way for everyone involved. This is not something that is approached simply based on intuitive and well meaning intention; it is based on well established and considered practice.

“It is absolutely based on protecting against revictimising victims, enabling where possible for them to tell an offender, this is what you have cost me, this is what you have done.”

A national strategy that was launched by the Scottish Government at the end of last year to tackle youth offending acknowledged the need for more engagement with restorative justice.

But Halpin conceded it is only one method, appropriate in certain circumstances.

He added: “Through an offender’s action this can enable a victim to know that the offender is remorseful, understands the full impact of their actions and genuinely wants to say sorry.

“Please be assured this is not a naïve attempt to achieve a world where everyone is in harmony. Restorative practices will not be appropriate for everyone. Many victims will have no desire to meet their attacker, an offender who does not recognise the harm they are responsible for, or is not remorseful, is neither suitable nor entitled to be involved.

“But restorative justice is possible, it is working every day. In Scotland it is long established in our police service working with juveniles involved in lower levels of offending, many local authorities offer restorative justice services, Sacro delivers these services every day.

“But it does seem to be reserved mainly for lower tariff offending. Even although we do know from some sensitive examples that this does work and does have a place to play in repairing harm related to serious criminal acts too.

“It even has a role to play in supporting good discipline, in prisons, where the practice is used to address conflict and bullying behaviours.

“What do we want for Scotland’s justice system? Does compassion have a place? I believe so. Punishment must be visible, swift and fair; and communities should be at the heart of penal reform.”

Ray and Vi Donovan, whose young son, Chris, was murdered near to their Surrey home in 2001, are advocates of restorative justice. The couple met one of the three men convicted of killing their son last summer.

“This was the first time we’d set eyes on him in a decade – when we saw him in court he was a boy – now he was a man in his mid-20s,” said Vi Donovan.

“We felt calm. We hugged him when he came into the room. Ray said he was forgiven and he whispered his thanks.

“He then told us that during the first two years of his sentence he didn’t admit to himself that he’d had a hand in killing our son. But then he went on a prison course and said that after that he couldn’t get Chris out of his head. He said that the first thing he’d done on his release was to go to the place the murder happened and put flowers there.

“He told us that he’d been a 15-year-old coward. He acknowledged he’d kicked Chris then left him in the road and run away. That was something we’d waited ten years to hear. He wasn’t at all the person we’d expected to see.”

She added: “It was good to tell him what he’d done to us. We then talked about the future and his plans to become an artist. He’d won a prize for art while he was in prison and Ray was able to put him in touch with someone we’d met in the course of our work with offenders who could help develop that.

“That restorative justice meeting made a real difference to us and we are now hoping to have meetings with the other two young men.”

In 2008 a commission led by former First Minister Henry McLeish looked at the prisons system and said the population, currently over 8,000, needed to be reduced to around 5,000.

Halpin insists there needs to be a radical change if that is to happen.

He said: “Restorative justice, making reparation, has a very necessary role to play in developing payback to communities. This does work, there are many examples in other jurisdictions, particularly Belgium. Not too far away. One thing we do know – it doesn’t make it worse.

“If we want to achieve Scotland’s vision of around 5000 prisoners, we will not do so by tinkering. Community payback alone will not achieve it. Such a seismic shift, like the shift from institutional care of mental health to care at home, requires [a] fundamental belief in the goal and total buy-in across public policy.

“If we are to make any inroads in terms of the prison population, we need credible alternatives to custody that has the mantra of public confidence at the centre.

“My argument is that confidence in the community demands a degree of remorse for the harm caused to be recognised by the system.”

Belgium is often held up as the shining example after it saw reoffending rates fall after implementing restorative justice policies. The schemes have also been introduced into prisons, where there is a restorative justice counsellor appointed to work with the governor to introduce concepts and practices in line with those developed within the community.

Examples of restorative justice exist in England too. For example, Derbyshire Constabulary has been using restorative justice since 2009 and the force says more than 12,000 crimes have now been resolved via this scheme.

John Scott, chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform Scotland, said it is important for Scottish authorities to try and expand its use.

He told Holyrood: “In relation to youth crime, there is talk of trying to increase the use of restorative justice in England and Wales, which is something that has been used successfully in Northern Ireland. It is mentioned here regularly but not a lot has been done.

“What is in it for the offender is actually being confronted with the reality of what they have done. A lot of crimes are committed without the offender ever having to face up to the personal consequences so restorative justice is considered by a lot of offenders as tougher than prison because they have to look the person in the eye and say they are sorry.

“No one is suggesting that this will solve every problem – but restorative justice has an impressive record. In the right circumstances, it can turn people around.

“It is something I think should be explored – we must acknowledge that prison doesn’t work in most cases and often offers little other than warehousing of poor people with addiction issues and mental health problems.”

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