Restorative justice works

24 March 2016

Jon Collins RJC CEO

Jon Collins, CEO of The Restorative Justice Council, (pictured) guest blogs for the Bar Council on how restorative justice is working and what role the barristers can play in making it effective. 

As the readers of this blog will know only too well, this is a time of real reform to the justice system, as I recently discussed in my own  blog. Yet this current state of flux is nothing new. The legal profession has, in recent years, been dealing with cuts to legal aid and the introduction of Transforming Summary Justice as efforts to cut costs have led to changes across the system. 

These changes are clearly not without downsides, particularly for those working in the system. But despite this there are positives. The justice system is working harder to involve victims of crime in a meaningful way, while a renewed focus on the rehabilitation of offenders is welcome. 

At the heart of this should be restorative justice, a process which can help reduce reoffending and increase victim satisfaction. Indeed the last government did invest significantly in its use. But it does not yet have the profile across the justice system that it deserves - it's the best intervention that you've (probably) never heard of. 

So, what is restorative justice and how does it work? 

Restorative justice is a process which gives victims the chance to meet or communicate with their offender. It can involve a face to face meeting, led by a trained facilitator who supports and prepares the people taking part and makes sure that the process is safe. Alternatively, when a face to face meeting is not the best way forward, the facilitator can arrange for the victim and offender to communicate indirectly, for example through letters or videos. For restorative justice to take place, the offender must have admitted to the crime, and both victim and offender must voluntarily agree to take part. 

Restorative justice can take place at any stage of the criminal justice system. It can be used as part of an out of court disposal, pre-sentence following a guilty plea, as part of a community or suspended sentence, alongside a custodial sentence, or at the resettlement stage. It does not have to replace a prosecution, as is often thought, but can run alongside the conventional justice process. It is also effective for all types of crime - from low level offences right up to the most serious crimes - with government research showing that it provides an 85% victim satisfaction rate and a 14% reduction in the frequency of reoffending.  

So what has all this got to do with readers of this blog? 

While restorative justice can only be carried out by properly trained professionals, barristers can still play an important role in supporting its use, particularly if it takes place pre-sentence. Under legislation passed by the last government, sentencers can adjourn a case or defer sentencing, following a guilty plea, to enable restorative justice to take place. If that doesn't happen, restorative justice can also form part of a community or suspended sentence, as part of a Rehabilitation Activity Requirement. Both defence and prosecution representatives need to recognise the benefits that this can bring. 

For offenders, participating in restorative justice is an opportunity to take responsibility for what they have done and make amends. It can also demonstrate remorse. While the guidance on pre-sentence restorative justice makes clear that there is no automatic reduction in sentence as a result of doing restorative justice, it is at the sentencer's discretion whether participating in restorative justice should affect the sentence, and remorse is a mitigating factor. 

For victims, taking part in restorative justice gives them a voice. It provides an opportunity to explain the impact that the crime had on them, ask any questions that they may have, and potentially receive an explanation and an apology. This can have real benefits, with 90% of victims who took part in the recent pre-sentence restorative justice pilot saying that it affected them in a positive way and 94% saying that they would recommend it to others. 

Taking part in restorative justice can help to make the justice system more effective, while also improving confidence and victims' experiences. But it's voluntary - both the victim and offender must be willing to participate in the process. Legal representatives can therefore play a vital role in explaining restorative justice, enabling offenders to make an informed choice about whether to take part. And, if prosecutors support it, that will reassure victims that this is a process that they can participate in with confidence. 

Restorative justice works and we want to see all victims and offenders given the opportunity to take part. We hope that, as a trusted professional voice in the justice system, barristers will help to make this happen.

The Restorative Justice Council has published a briefing on restorative justice for defence practitioners and prosecutors, which is available for download  here. 

Jon Collins joined the Restorative Justice Council as chief executive officer in May 2014 having previously been deputy director of the Police Foundation, an independent policing think tank, since May 2011. Prior to joining the Police Foundation he was director of the Criminal Justice Alliance, a coalition of organisations that works to establish a fairer and more effective criminal justice system. Jon has previously worked at the Fawcett Society and at Nacro, the crime reduction charity. He is also a governor of a London primary school.