Friday, 2 September 2016

From YJB to RJB?

This week's’ Justice Committee report on Restorative Justice (RJ) has a familiar ring to it. It’s positive about the impact which RJ can have both on people who suffer from criminal harm and those who cause it. It’s cautiously optimistic too about RJ’s cost effectiveness, while rightly recognising the need for investment in properly trained facilitators, particularly for work with more serious and difficult cases.

Yet, as the Criminal Justice Alliance tweeted yesterday, the report is something of a fudge.  The Committee’s conclusion - that it is too soon to introduce a legislative right to access restorative justice services but such a goal is laudable and should be actively worked towards- is hardly a call to storm the winter palace of conventional criminal justice and bring about a restorative revolution. It looks set to maintain RJ’s place at the margins rather than propel it to the heart of responses to lawbreaking.

Yes, there has been some growth in the availability of RJ in recent years although the whole area is something of a data free zone. How many cases are dealt with restoratively each year? Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands? We simply don’t know and while there are all sorts of definitional problems making measurement difficult, getting a handle on what’s happening calls for some stronger national leadership.  This should build on the good work of the Restorative Justice Council, who have at least sought to map the organisations offering RJ.  With the Youth Justice Board seemingly on the way out, is it time for a Restorative Justice Board to drive RJ forward nationally for adults and children?

Locally some clearer decisions should be made about who is responsible for commissioning and providing RJ. Is it primarily a voluntary sector activity or should police, probation and prisons be expected to offer it ?  A study of European jurisdictions found that RJ options are used by prosecutors and by courts in a wide variety of cases. In Germany prosecutors can dismiss charges if the accused makes a serious attempt to reach a mediated agreement with the aggrieved person by trying to make reparation for his offence, in full or in part. Courts can mitigate or even dispense with punishment if the perpetrator has in an effort to achieve mediation with the aggrieved party, completely or substantially made restitution for his act or earnestly strived to make restitution. About half of victim offender mediation cases in Germany relate to a violent offence.

Back in 2012, the Ministry of Justice though committed to making more use of RJ did not want to do so in a way that was over prescriptive or places unnecessary restrictions or burdens upon the system. While a series of Action Plans and funding for PCC's  have helped to grow RJ since then, the goals of making restorative justice available to victims at every stage of the criminal justice system and in every location will never be achieved without a stronger approach.

There may be opportunities for a step change in RJ in the coming months- in problem solving courts, reform prisons or a new youth justice system (if the Taylor report sees the light of day). But they won’t be taken if its business as usual.    

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