Although the development of mediated responses to conflict can be traced back several decades in modern times, it is within the past 25 years that Restorative Justice has gained momentum. Restorative Justice is an innovative approach in criminal justice, that aims to give victims a greater role in the justice process, as well as cut reoffending.
Home Office research tells us that less than a third of recent crime victims feel that the Criminal Justice System meets their needs. Comparing recorded crime with the findings of the British Crime Survey suggests that up to 75% of crime isn't reported. Although 5.2 million crimes were recorded in 2000, only 326,000 offenders were sentenced at Crown or Magistrates Court. The whole system has been estimated to cost up to £60 billion a year - £12 billion of which is just the processing costs. And ultimately it doesn’t work; 58% of all discharged prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release, and significant proportions of the population report being fairly or very worried about crime.
Restorative Justice has developed in recent years, alongside wider reforms to the youth justice system in England and Wales introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act. Restorative Justice is central to the new approach to youth justice, integral to the delivery of reprimands and final warnings to young people, and forms a key aspect of the referral orders designed for youngsters appearing in court for the first time. In Scotland, we have the Children’s Hearings system initiated by the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, now incorporated in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. This contains significant restorative aspects - for example Police Restorative Warnings. In Northern Ireland, we now have the Youth Justice Agency, which is a Restorative Justice model based on the family group conferencing model from New Zealand.
Research into the use of Restorative Justice amongst adult offenders, including those serving prison sentences for more serious offences, has demonstrated significant reductions in the rate of re-offending, improvements in the overall satisfaction of victims, and increased confidence in the Criminal Justice System.
Indeed, there is already some evidence to suggest that, the more serious the offence, the greater the capacity for Restorative Justice to make a difference both for victim and offender.
But Restorative Justice is not just for use in the Criminal Justice System. Dealing with anti-social behaviour and neighbourhood disputes, combating disruptive behaviour in schools and care homes, improving prison regimes, and resolving workplace grievances and disciplinary matters; these are just a few examples of areas where a variety of agencies are increasingly co-operating to find a solution and Restorative Justice has been shown to be effective.
Critics of Restorative Justice have argued that it's a ‘soft option’, or that it fails to respect participants’ human rights. On the first charge, there is really no comparison between a restorative meeting in which a wrongdoer takes full, direct, and personal responsibility for their actions, and a formal hearing at which they may be present but are barely involved, and which revolves entirely around mitigation and the ‘laying-off’ of responsibility. Indeed, some offenders offered Restorative Justice have been known to opt for traditional court action and its consequences because, of the two options, it's the court which they view as softer.
On the second count it's perhaps true that, if not properly managed, there are risks with Restorative Justice around issues such as the right to a defence and potential revictimisation. Such risks also exist though in conventional judicial processes. Human rights moreover lie at the very heart of Restorative Justice meaning such potential pitfalls aren't an argument not to practise Restorative Justice, rather to make sure it is practised effectively based on the fundamental values of voluntary participation and informed consent.