quarta-feira, fevereiro 07, 2007


Facing the consequences

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New research shows that bringing criminals in contact with victims deters re-offending more than prison, but will government support match its rhetoric? Laura Smith reports

Wednesday February 7, 2007
The Guardian

Sandra had to fight to meet the man who killed her husband. After the blur of words in the courtroom, after the announcement that a sentence had been reached, even after he had been put behind bars, she was left with a nagging feeling that it wasn't quite over, that she hadn't quite said what she needed to say. There were questions to ask - and the only person who could answer them was the killer. She asked one local agency to help arrange a meeting with him, but they couldn't, or wouldn't. "I think they thought I was a little bit bonkers," she says. "They were wary because it wasn't a stolen bag of sweets or a broken window of a car, which can be dealt with by a cosy chat. It was a life. But it's not for them to say what's right for me. I knew I needed to do it."

Finally, after months of trying, she found a mediator within the probation service willing to take on her case. And so it was, two years after the trial, that Sandra, a mother in her forties, found herself sitting opposite the man whose name she would rather not say. "I think the first thing I said was: 'Why?' And from there it just unfolded," she says. "I didn't even raise my voice. I just told it to him straight. 'This is what you have done, this is what you have destroyed.' You can't speak in court, you can't even cry or show emotion in case you prejudice the jury. So it was the first time I could say what I wanted."

Restorative justice encourages communication between victims and offenders in an attempt to address the harm caused by a criminal act. Unlike the UK's traditional legal system, in which a crime is considered to have taken place against the state, and lawyers speak for the offender and the injured party, the approach encourages communication between the actual people involved. This may be indirect, in the form of letters or a passing on of information; or it may be direct, such as a face-to-face meeting in the presence of a mediator. Sandra chose the latter.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was the latest to voice his support for restorative justice when he delivered the annual lecture to the Prison Reform Trust last week. Margaret Carey, chair of the Restorative Justice Consortium, says: "The Archbishop has pointed out how little our current criminal justice system does to encourage a sense of responsibility among offenders. We know that, for many offenders, meeting the victim of their crimes is the first time they really understand what they have done, and the impact of their crime on others. Restorative justice gives victims who want it the chance to tell offenders the real impact of their offending. And it gives offenders the chance to apologise and turn their lives around."

The government has long claimed to support such approaches. Its first major strategy document on the subject, in 2003, pledged to "maximise the use of restorative justice in the criminal justice system" and included an enthusiastic foreword by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, who said it had an important role to play "as part of effective policing, as a diversion from prosecution, in sentencing, and as part of effective community and custodial regimes".

Although subsequent documents have echoed this line - notably, a 2005 report that quoted a wealth of positive research - those who work in the field say such words have not been backed up with action. Although significant progress has been made in the youth justice system, with more than 85% of victims now offered restorative interventions, critics describe a two-tier system in which provision for those who, like Sandra, have suffered at the hands of adult offenders is at best patchy and at worst non-existent. Two years after the publication of its strategy report, the Home Office's restorative justice policy team was shut down as part of staffing cuts, and a number of pilots were closed, apparently due to lack of funding.

Carey says there is deep disappointment among organisations working in the field. "Given what we already know about the benefits that restorative justice can offer, this lack of resources - both for policy development at the centre and for service delivery at local level - is not cost effective in the long term," she argues.
Her view will be bolstered by the publication tomorrow of a report that is expected to call for a national Restorative Justice Board to make the approach central to the way we deal with crime. The review, commissioned by the Smith Institute thinktank, is also expected to offer evidence that restorative interventions substantially reduce repeat offending, and, in the case of adults, do so more successfully than prison.

Barbara Tudor, area victim offender development officer for the West Midlands Probation Service, has been offering victim-offender mediation for more than 20 years. "The system we have now fosters adversity," she says. "Victims see offenders as trying to get off. Offenders see victims as keeping them inside. What is never dealt with is the emotional pain that they both share, the issues that will be causing them sleepless nights. This isn't easy work, it's emotional stuff. But the people who do it come out so much better. We don't aim for it, but it's very rare that people don't offer an apology - and apologising is a powerful thing."

Margaret Miles has been working with young offenders for 15 years and for three years has run Crime Concern's Suffolk reparation and mediation service, which accepts Youth Offending Team referrals. She says meeting the victim is one of the few things that brings home to young people what they have done. "You can see them for the first time looking at the effect of their behaviour and asking how they can put it right," she says.

Strong evidence

The evidence for the success of restorative interventions is strong. Studies have shown high levels of willingness among victims to meet offenders, and high levels of satisfaction among those that do so. Victims and offenders report finding the process fairer than going to court, with victims more likely to receive an apology and more likely to believe it was genuine. Research also found that such approaches reduced post-traumatic stress disorder among victims, with 60% saying the process helped put the crime behind them. Last week, the chief inspector of prisons warned that the system was at breaking point, with many prisons reneging on rehabilitation and resettlement aims. The government has said that its criminal justice aims are to give victims more of a say and to reduce re-offending. So why isn't it doing more to encourage an approach that apparently meets both these goals and might offer an alternative to prison?

A Home Office spokeswoman says that restorative justice is a "work in progress" and that the government is awaiting the outcomes of two further pieces of research before deciding how to proceed. The reports - on victim and offender satisfaction and restorative justice's impact on re-offending - are both due to be published this year.
But critics say the government has had time enough to work out its position. "At a time when criminal justice is in crisis, there are no other approaches around that are so well researched and provide such hard evidence of success," says Charles Pollard, who pioneered the use of restorative cautioning during his time as chief constable of Thames Valley Police in the late 1990s. "Everyone is utterly frustrated with the Home Office's inability to grasp new ideas. Of course, restorative justice is not a panacea, but as an approach that unlocks so many problems in the criminal justice system and makes it more humane and effective, it has huge potential."

No soft option

Andrew Buckingham, spokesman for Victim Support, suspects a political dimension. "For an offender, the reality of having to meet the person they have harmed and look them in the eye is not a soft option," he says. "But some people's attitudes are so firmly entrenched that it will be difficult to persuade them otherwise. The government has got quite a battle to change hearts and minds." Several months after meeting the man who killed her husband, Sandra is adamant that restorative approaches should be more widely available. "It doesn't change anything because, at the end of the day, I have still not got a husband," she says. "But I am glad I did it because I got my point over and I do think he listened. It is a hard thing to do. People are probably in utter horror at the thought of it. But until you are in a position like me, you don't know what you would do.
"That person had the destiny of my husband's life in his hands and he chose to end it. All the solicitors and lawyers can speak for him and play bat and ball and argue, but he's the only one that can give a reason for it."

· Some names have been changed.
Full version of the report at smith-institute.org.uk

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