A study into youth justice in Northern Ireland has found that reoffending rates are much lower when offenders are involved in ''restorative justice'' schemes.
The report published by the Prison Reform Trust (UK), Making Amends: restorative youth justice in Northern Ireland, found that a Northern Ireland restorative justice scheme, which has been running since 2003, has proven more effective at changing behaviour than custody.
Some 38% of 10 to 17 year olds participating in the scheme in Northern Ireland in 2006 re-offended within a year, compared to 71% of those given custodial terms.
The percentage of those re-offending where restorative justice was used instead of a prosecution was 28%.
Under the restorative justice approach, offenders formally recognise the consequences of their actions and apologise to victims. The meetings can be take place as part of a court procedure or be in lieu of a prosecution.
Participants in Northern Ireland's Youth Conference process have also been ordered to pay compensation, take part in educational activities and unpaid work, or made to have treatment for alcohol, drug, or mental health problems.
The PRT report found that many victims prefer the experience of participating in a restorative justice meeting to attending court: nine out of ten victims, most of whom came face to face with the criminal who harmed them, backed the process.
The PRT noted that in Northern Ireland there appears to be a high level of public support for restorative justice as a method of dealing with young offenders.
Underlining that effective public engagement is critical to the success of any attempt to expand the role of restorative justice within the youth justice system, PRT Director Juliet Lyon said: "It's all too easy to say that nothing works with young offenders whereas we can learn from successful work in Northern Ireland that a structured system of restorative justice cuts youth crime and satisfies victims.
"Most people would support the idea of young people having to face up to the harm they have done and working hard to make amends."