Restorative justice is a phrase we’re starting to hear more and more about. But what is it and does it really work? Emma Jones works for part time restorative justice charity Remedi, and tells us more about this new initiative.
2016 was a big year for Sheffield based charity Remedi, they celebrated their 20th anniversary, had actor Michal Palin become a new patron, and won the prestigious Howard League for Penal Reform’s ‘Organisation of the Year’ Award. Impressive feats for a charity whose first head office was a converted toilet in Lowedges. And who are they? They’re a charity that provides restorative justice initiatives, helping victims to move on from the damage a crime has done to their lives, and offenders to understand the impact of their actions. According to a recent report, using restorative justice leads to a 25 per cent increase in non-reoffending among criminals. But what is restorative justice? It is an integral part of today’s legal system but yet only a small number of us know that the practice actually exists.
The basic definition of restorative justice is ‘a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large,’ and examples of such have been emerging in mainstream media, with documentary programs like Panorama’s ‘Meet the Burglars’ that highlight even the more extreme cases in which the families of murder victims are able to meet and attempt some form of reconciliation with the murderer. However, most cases are typically not quite as intense, at least on the surface. For instance: a young offender who has burgled a house can be given the opportunity to write a letter, (of course with the victims’ consent), to explain why they did what they did and apologise. This sounds like only a small action, but can be enough to ease the mind of the victims who in some cases believe there was a specific reason they were personally burgled and begin to feel unsafe in their own homes. The concept of having the opportunity to explain and apologise seems basic, something most of us learn as children, and so it seems crazy that it is not part of the basic justice system, to give victims and offenders this opportunity. I believe punishment alone is not enough to change someone’s behaviour, and the connections a person makes in prison can often lead them to commit even worse crimes when they leave.
A criminal case that received much attention was James Hodgkinson, 28, who was killed by just a single punch while out clubbing with his friends in Nottingham six years ago. The offender, Jacob Dunne, was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to 30 months in prison. However, when he was released he found himself, he wrote an article for the Huffington post where he said he was “definitely not rehabilitated by his time inside.” He talked about his experience with restorative justice, something he had never heard of before, and described it as being the catalyst for his change in behaviour and the way in which he saw the world.
It happened like this- The victim’s parents, Joan Scourfield and David Hodgkinson, approached the charity Remedi with a view towards having some contact with Jacob: “they needed answers about the incident and I was the only person who could provide those answers,” Jacob wrote in the same article. Two years of indirect communication eventually lead to a meeting between Jacob and James’ parents, facilitated by Remedi, and proved not only an opportunity for explanation and apology, but a life-changing turning point on both sides. Before the meeting, Jacob admits that he saw himself as a victim in the situation, his imprisonment as the result of what he saw as an unplanned mistake, making him bitter and angry. It was only upon meeting the parents of James that he was able to appreciate the true impact of his actions, and how detrimental it was for him to view himself as the victim. This lead to frequent contact between the three, Joan and David even encouraging Jacob to recommence his education, and taking an interest in what he was doing with his life, much to his surprise.
As a result of his work with Remedi, Jacob is now studying for a degree in criminology, and working with Joan and David on a campaign to raise awareness of how easy it is to kill a person unintentionally, (one-punch killings) in order to prevent similar events.
“It just feels like I got my life back. I’ve been scared to go out ever since it happened and that’s gone.”
Clare, victim of assault, Remedi user.
Remedi, and many other restorative justice charities are very clear that participation in a restorative justice process must be voluntary for everyone involved. Both parties, victim and offender, are contacted by the organisation and have to opt in to the service, and can proceed in any way they see fit, either having direct or indirect contact with the other party. Public concern about the practice comes in the worry that one party will have ulterior motives: either revenge from the victim or a chance to gloat on the part of the offender. However, the risk assessments and checks put in place make this incredibly rare. In fact, 99 per cent of victims report satisfaction with their experience, and 89 per cent of offenders say it has motivated them not to reoffend, (source: Remedi statistical data 2016). That is the important thing to remember: based purely on the statistics, restorative justice works. Much of the time the victim has been able to recover more quickly than they would have, and even to forgive the person who has wronged them.
“I have been in and out of prison for the last 25 years. This RJ thing was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The thought of it terrified me. Prison was never a problem to me, but for the first time in my life, this is made me really think.”
John, multiple convictions for burglary and theft, Remedi user.
This idea of apology and forgiveness however, can be cast in a dim light, which is why the positive effects on the victims rather than the positive effects on the offender are often given most attention. Language like “getting away with it” and “softening of the legal system” is used in articles, and this really fails to address the point of this kind of initiative. When the current system leads to a growing prison population, high-rates of reoffending and a lack of funds available to deal with these problems, then why immediately condemn solutions to these problems before they have been given a chance to prove their effectiveness? It is also well worth noting that for every £1 spent on restorative justice, £8 of public money is saved, according to a Ministry of Justice report. It is also however important to add that the process may not always be about offering forgiveness to the offender. Victims are motivated to take part for a whole host of reasons- from simply wishing to express the impact the offence has had on them, to seeking answers to questions they have about what happened, and why. Likewise offenders have varying motivations for taking part- to make recompense, to offer an apology from a genuine place of remorse and as Remedi service user Adrian, a convicted burglar explained: “It was the least I could do.”