If there is a genuine and sincere commitment to repairing the harm, rebuilding fractured relationships or rifts and resolving conflict constructively - which proponents argue underpins restorative justice - then surely the victim (the person directly harmed by the offence) has a crucial part to play, right?
The report from the Justice Select Committee proposed that all people in the UK should have a legitimate right to access restorative justice. It is too much of a postcode lottery at present, creating unfairness for both victims and offenders, MPs have argued. They also said how despite pockets of good practice there are areas for development notably regarding accessibility. I welcome the call to expand access to restorative justice. However, I have some concerns:
What if people feel dissatisfied and disengage with the process of reconciliation - could it be counterproductive? In other words, could issues be amplified despite the benign intentions of facilitators and supporters?
- What if there are doubts regarding offender capacity to engage in the process due to, for example, limitations in terms of brain development or acquired head injury?
- Could due process and proportionality be compromised?
- Isn't the offender also the victim, especially as many have suffered loss, trauma and abuse?
- Are the correct assessments done on both offender and victim - we know that not all victims are "nice people" nor all offenders unpleasant ones?
- Can restorative justice simply reinforce power differentials, particularly for children?
Despite these concerns, victims and offenders meeting face to face can be a powerful and rewarding experience for both parties. However, it can also be problematic, especially if offenders are coerced or pressured into accepting a restorative justice intervention. Victims could feel re-victimised and become more fearful. Offenders may be at risk also if victims feel resentful, seeking revenge or excessive punishment.
Some offenders may not meet with their victims for sincere intentions. And despite an offender showing remorse, the victim may not accept the apology possibly exacerbating anger and distress for both parties. However, practitioners properly trained in the use of restorative justice have a fundamental part to play in ensuring offenders and victims do not enter into it for the wrong reasons. As Jon Collins CEO of the Restorative Justice Council has said, people facilitating restorative meetings should receive appropriate training and adhere to national standards. Indeed, a highly trained and experienced restorative justice facilitator can ensure that both parties (victims and offenders) are properly assessed (preventing inappropriate cases from going forward, such as where the offender does not accept responsibility) and prepared.
Restorative justice has the potential to reduce stress, trauma, improve self-esteem, and achieve reductions in reoffending. But, restorative practice forums for example should not be deficit-led (about control and punishment) but rather driven by a collaborative problem-solving approach where matters are discussed and dealt with fairly.
As Jon Collins has also said, quality restorative justice provides the victim with a voice and a chance to move on with their lives. He has put a convincing case forward that restorative justice should be made available to all victims of crime at all stages of the criminal justice process.
But as Gareth Jones from Peer Power & Association of Youth Offending Team Managers has said, restorative justice is not a panacea for all conflict and neither should it be regarded as a cheap "quick fix" for the criminal justice process. It is a very useful tool. And like all tools, it needs to be expertly utilised in appropriate circumstances to ensure positive outcomes. It should of course be available to all who wish to utilise it if a fair and equitable service is to be achieved.
Sean Creaney is an advisor at social justice charity Peer Power