Making young offenders confront the consequences of their actions can help them avoid falling into a cycle of crime
By Juliet Lyon, Prison Reform Trust (UK), in today's Guardian.
Promises to put victims at the heart of the justice system sound good but can have a hollow ring. Too often people find themselves lost in a maze of unfamiliar, complex and bureaucratic criminal justice process and procedures. Only to emerge feeling that their account of being harmed has not really been heard or, at least, not properly understood. So a youth justice system which satisfies 90% of crime victims and substantially reduces reoffending rates is well worth looking into.
In Northern Ireland an established system of restorative justice is getting young offenders to face their victims, recognise the harm they have done and ensuring that they work hard to make amends. Emerging results show that this "youth conferencing" is cutting crime, saving costs and, not surprisingly, leading to greater confidence in the criminal justice system.
Since being formally established in 2003, the Northern Ireland Youth Conference Service has convened more than 6,500 such conferences. Official figures indicate that just over a third of 10- to 17-year-olds participating in this restorative justice process reoffend within a year. Although still a high number, this compares very favourably to the almost three-quarters of young people reconvicted following a spell in prison. Where restorative justice can be used instead of prosecution, outcomes are particularly good. Encouragingly, the number of young people sentenced to custody in Northern Ireland is falling year on year. It is thought in part in response to this new effective approach.
Restorative justice has sometimes been dismissed as "just saying sorry" by those who have no experience of how rigorous and effective this approach is. Yet facing victims is one of the hardest things a perpetrator of crime can be asked to do.
One courageous young victim was able to tell a boy following a violent incident: "After it happened I wouldn't go to school 'cos I was terrified of you. When I saw you going into school I ran away. I was terrified. I was shaking. You hurt me." Another made it clear what vandalising his car had meant to him: "I was working in a club to get extra money. It was my first car. Took me three years to save up for it."
All those involved say that meetings are usually charged with emotion, with offenders likely to express shame and regret. Families are often involved, and young offenders are ashamed to have let them down and broken their trust as well as deeply regretting the harm they have caused to their victims. Following a conference one young man said he felt: "Sad really. Like I'm upset with what I've done and wish you could take it back. Wish I could change time."
A structured youth conference usually involves family and community members, and a police officer. Offenders and victims are helped by highly trained and skilled organisers to discuss the offence, its impact and to agree on an action plan for the offender. Components of a youth conference action plan can include:
- An apology – verbal or written.
- Reparation: that is, doing something for the victim or community to make up for the harm caused.
- Specified activity to address offending eg engagement in mentoring or offender behaviour programme, education or diversionary activity.
- Unpaid work for up to 240 hours.
- Restriction: that is, prohibiting the young person from undertaking certain activities or going to certain places; this can entail electronic monitoring.
- Payment of compensation to the victim or a charity.
- Supervision by a social worker or other responsible adult.
- Treatment for alcohol, drug, or mental health problems.
Following burglary and criminal damage at a church, a 16-year-old worked to put things right by cleaning, polishing and painting, supervised by the caretaker, as well as apologising to the clergyman. The young man also donated a sum of money to a charitable organisation helping to reconstruct people's lives and homes after the Asian tsunami. He kept his word as given at the conference, completed all that had been asked of him and has not reoffended. He has returned to school and will shortly take up vocational training. All parties involved in the restorative conference believed the outcomes to be fair and proportionate to the offence.
Many victims prefer the experience of participating in a restorative justice meeting to attending court. Victims were present in two-thirds of all youth conferences held in 2008-09. Of them, 80% expressed satisfaction with the process and 90% said they would recommend it to other victims.
There is now a compelling movement, backed by evidence and experience, for restorative justice to be much more widely available for victims of crime. Even those who have been affected by the most serious crimes can benefit.
At the moment, restorative justice for under-18-year-olds in England and Wales is effectively limited to first time and minor offenders, and to small, local initiatives. Having just published its applied research report, Making Amends: restorative youth justice in Northern Ireland", the Prison Reform Trust is now calling on the government to draw on positive outcomes and to establish an integrated restorative justice system.
It is all too easy to give up on children in trouble or to believe that nothing works with young offenders. Most people would surely rather young people had to face the consequences of their actions and make amends rather than getting into more and more trouble and ending up in jail. Growing the adult prison population of the future, rather than acting to put things right, does little or nothing to prevent the next victim of crime.