David Blunkett’s big idea
The government will says this week that it is introducing “restorative justice”. It is an idea could transform the way that criminal justice works. But will ministers that it is about much more than cleaning graffiti or picking up litter?
The Observer Crime and Justice debate
Sunday 14 July 2002 02.46 BST
This week’s White Paper will see the government put criminal justice reform at the centre of the political agenda. But, like King Canute showing his credulous courtiers that he couldn’t control the tide, Lord Justice Auld commented in his report on the criminal courts that “we expect too much of the courts as a medium for reducing crime, for remedying wrongs to victims and society and for rehabilitating individual offenders”.
The problems are well known and David Blunkett will rehearse them again on Wednesday. Courts keep victims waiting around, subject them to demeaning cross-examinations, and often give offenders a mere walk-on part. The background to the case is excluded, victims can’t ask offenders for explanations. Overload causes inefficiency which aggravates overload.
The British Crime Survey has shown that a third or less of victims wanted prison for ‘their’ offender for crimes such as burglary or mugging (preferring community measures or cautions), and the Home Office’s review of sentencing, the Halliday report on Making Punishments Work repeats yet again that the younger the offender and the shorter the sentence, the higher the reconviction rates. The courts’ response: to impose more short sentences and lock up more young offenders. This ingeniously aggravates both the prison crisis and the crime rate.
A new idea is obviously needed. There is one – it is called restorative justice – but the government has not yet understood it. Hopefully the White Paper, which will pledge allegiance to the idea, will show a fuller understanding of what it means? The common mistake is to think it means a new form of punishment, such as cleaning graffiti or picking up litter. Ministers need to undersyand that this is a distinct philosophy of criminal justice which could supersede the problematic ‘just deserts’ (proportionate punishment even if it doesn’t work) and ‘utilitarian’ (aim for what ‘works’, even if it isn’t proportionate).
Restorative justice starts by re-thinking the aims of the criminal justice system. The first priority should be the victim, and the help offered by victim support agencies. If the offender is found (and only a minority are) the process itself should encourage him or her to acknowledge the harm caused, and put it at least partly right. Many victims welcome the chance to tell the offender the effect of what he did, and ask questions such as ‘Why did you pick on me?’
One young man violently robbed a woman at a bus station in broad daylight. He agreed to meet his victim, with his mother; the victim brought her friend. She told him how frightened she had been; and he explained that he wanted money to buy new clothes for a big party. His mother was shocked at what he had done. The victim was not so concerned about the money, but wanted the robber to do something for people less fortunate than himself. It was arranged that he would work on a project teaching disabled children to swim. (Details changed to preserve anonymity.)
More than this, restorative justice involves people in the community as far as possible. Mediators are often volunteers, managed by a voluntary organisation; this spreads understanding of the issues. An accreditation system is being introduced to ensure high standards. In one version called ‘conferencing’, the offender’s extended family, and other people who matter to him, are invited to meet and work out a plan to help him stay out of trouble; the victim, with family or friends, can also attend, talk with the offender, and discuss reparation. Offenders are more likely to complete reparation they have agreed to than if it is ordered by a court. Often an aunt or a grandparent, rather than an official, will provide supervision.
Where does this leave deterrence? For many offenders ‘taking their punishment’ is a badge of courage; the embarrassment of meeting their victim (and their own family) is much harder to face. Being found out remains the primary deterrent. Punishment encourages them to deny or minimize the harm they have caused the victim. In a restorative process they talk more freely about their background; often this will show up a pattern of high unemployment in the area, few youth clubs or inadequate schools or colleges. This can then be fed back to those responsible for crime reduction strategy, and ultimately to social policy.
How would it work? Minor offences should get a restorative caution, already pioneered by Thames Valley police, emphasising the harm to the victim rather than threatening punishment next time. Many crimes such as assault, arising from a dispute, could go straight to mediation to resolve it; prosecutors would divert more serious cases, where the accused did not deny involvement, to mediation or conferencing. If the victim and offender were satisfied, it would no longer be in the public interest to take up court time with the case.
The White Paper should therefore promote community-based mediation services nationwide. Courts would then reduce their backlog, and have more time for the most serious cases; even here, conferences could be used to work out a plan on which to base the sentence. In New Zealand youth courts, where this is done, judges generally follow the recommendations; the use of courts and custody dropped dramatically.
Extensive research on restorative justice shows more victims are satisfied, more offenders feel fairly treated, and fewer re-offend, but too few victims are told about it. The law needs amending to make it more restorative and more mainstream. Surely this could be an all-party crime policy.
Martin Wright is the author of Restoring respect for justice (Waterside Press 1999). Find out more at the Restorative Justice Consortium website.
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