Restorative justice is repairing social harm

The process of restorative justice – where offenders and victims meet in a safe, guided environment – is helping reduce crime and giving victims a chance to move on with their lives

When Tania* was mugged on her way to her local shops, she didn’t just lose her handbag but irreplaceable things too: notes from her children and presents from her father who had died several years earlier. She also lost her confidence.

“I became really withdrawn after the robbery, shocked about what had happened to me,” she says. “I still feel really uncomfortable with somebody coming up behind me and I’m not sure that will change.”

Craig*, the man who mugged her, was arrested and charged and Tania had the chance to read a victim impact statement before he was sentenced to three years in prison. But she was left living with unanswered questions, and fear. So when she was offered the chance to meet Craig in a restorative justice conference – a meeting between a victim and offender, led by a facilitator – she agreed. “I thought it would give me back control,” she says. “I would be the one making decisions. I would be in charge. That wasn’t something I got from reading the victim impact statement in court.”

“I would be the one making decisions. I would be in charge. That wasn’t something I got
from reading the victim impact statement in court”

Restorative justice offers victims and perpetrators of crime the chance to communicate in a controlled environment about the harm that has been caused and how that might be repaired. Within the criminal justice system, it can take the form of one-to-one or group conferences, led by a facilitator who carefully prepares those taking part, or, if meeting face-to-face is not considered appropriate, through letters or recorded interviews.

Unlike the mainstream criminal justice system, in which a crime is considered to have taken place against the state, restorative justice is based on the idea that crime or wrongdoing is committed against an individual or community. As a result, victims take an active role in the process and offenders are encouraged to face the consequences of their actions. Restorative justice interventions can be used for any type of crime and at any stage of the criminal justice process, but the offender must have admitted to the crime, and both victim and offender must agree to take part.

Government research shows that 85% of victims find restorative justice helpful, and most would recommend it to others. Among offenders, there is a 14% reduction in reoffending rates. “During the court process, victims frequently feel sidelined,” Jon Collins, chief executive officer of the Restorative Justice Council (RJC), told Positive News. “Restorative justice gives victims a voice, so that they can explain the real impact of a crime and ask questions. This helps them to put a line under a traumatic experience and move on with their lives. Restorative justice also holds offenders to account for what they have done and helps them to take responsibility and make amends.”

The RJC says that government support for the approach has increased under the coalition government, with specific funding for police and youth offending teams to carry out restorative interventions, legislation giving judges more power to encourage restorative justice between conviction and sentencing, and the launch of a ‘quality mark’ scheme supported by the Ministry of Justice to help standardise restorative practice nationally. Collins says that while provision still varies across the country, the approach has moved firmly into the mainstream over the past five years, building on over a decade of work inside and outside government.

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Criminologist and restorative justice pioneer John Braithwaite describes it as a way to repair the social harm caused by crime, rather than stigmatise and punish the offender. Similar approaches can be used to manage conflict in a range of settings, including schools, workplaces, prisons and local communities.

The renewed interest in the approach in the UK can be explained partly by its cost-saving potential. The RJC says that for every £1 spent on restorative justice interventions, a further £8 can be saved because of the reduction in reoffending and its associated court, prison, insurance and other costs.

For Tania and Craig, taking part in a restorative justice conference was a positive step. “Craig told me that he had asked for the meeting because he felt so guilty,” says Tania. “He said that he couldn’t get the sound of my screaming out of his head. You make an assumption … about what the person who hurt you is like. The person I saw in front of me wasn’t necessarily the ogre that I’d made him out to be in my head.

“I feel I’ve got my self-confidence back since the meeting. I’ve got my peace of mind back, my stability. In a strange way, I admire the courage it took for Craig to meet me. He didn’t have to take part but he did, and I think it made him realise what it feels like to be a victim.”

* Names have been changed