For many victims of crime, there is an overwhelming desire to meet the person responsible. The news that the ministry of justice plans to enshrine in law a right to access restorative justice for victims will undoubtedly be well-received. A recent Ipsos Mori poll conducted by the restorative Justice Council highlighted its popularity: as many as 85 per cent of victims wanted the right to meet their offender, to talk about the impact of their crime and come to an agreement.
Enabling victims to meet with the person who broke into their house, damaged their property or mugged them isn’t a new idea. Restorative justice programmes are in place in the US and have become popular in Germany and Austria. In the United Kingdom, however, our criminal justice system has remained broadly the same for decades without adopting many of these kinds of initiatives, and has been, arguably, the most overlooked area of public policy. It is clear that Michael Gove, the secretary of state for justice, is determined to change this. But the question remaining is whether his abilities match up to his ambitions, or whether we will end up with another schools-style catastrophe.
For restorative justice to be worthwhile, it has to prevent prisoners from reoffending. Whilst making victims feel as though the system works for them is vital, the most crucial part of that is ensuring that there are fewer victims in future. The evidence for restorative justice meaningfully reducing the rate of reoffending is mixed, and a subject of continued discussion for many academics and policymakers.
The experience of so-called restorative justice programmes in other countries, however, demonstrates that there is a fine line between restorative justice and retribution. The real risk is that this government’s attempts at pushing a progressive prison reform agenda are derailed by Conservative populism and cross over into concerted attempts to humiliate, stripping initiatives of any potential to rehabilitate those who commit crimes. If restorative justice schemes are effective in reducing reoffending, it is certainly only in cases where all parties see it as a solution, rather than something they have been pressured into doing.
Also, with restorative justice comes the risk of misunderstanding why people commit crimes. Whilst there is a temptation to assume that offenders are unaware of or apathetic about the suffering that their actions cause, this could not be further from the truth. When as many as 90 per cent of prisoners are estimated to have a mental health problem and more than half of young offenders have been through the care system, it is clear that the situation is more complex than this. If someone is committing crimes because they are addicted to drugs, have a mental health problem or because of their dire socioeconomic situation, no amount of apologising to their victims is likely to alleviate the factors driving their behaviour.
Instead then, the government should be targeting the causes of crime; poverty, inequality, and the failure to address these problems in the health, education or social security systems. If both victims and offenders want to meet and come to an agreement together, this is likely to be a powerful tool in their rehabilitation and in repairing the damage done to the community. However, if this government intends to simply force vulnerable people who have committed crimes to atone, without offering the support that they need to escape a cycle of criminal behaviour, then that would be a tragic missed opportunity. When close to half of all adult prisoners re-offend within a year, at a cost to the taxpayer of between £9-13bn, rehabilitation is an opportunity we as a society cannot afford to miss.
Gabriel Gavin and Tyrone Steele are co-founders of the Labour Campaign for Prison Reform, which launched last week.
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