A woman sits in a police station. Beside her is the man who tried to rob her of her wallet. He says he is sorry; she is afraid and sceptical. But her assailant looks less menacing now. He has brought his baby and his girlfriend, who tells the victim that she is livid about what her partner did. An accident had stopped him working as a builder, she says. They were short of money, isolated, in despair. The victim accepts that her attacker feels remorse. In the light of this, the judge decides, for the first time ever, not to impose a jail term for robbery. Several years have passed. As far as anyone knows, this man has not committed another crime. Proponents of rebarbative measures will think this story emblematic of a soft-touch system. Others hope that such solutions are a foretaste of justice in Gordon Brown's Britain.
A report published on 8 February suggests a revolution in law and order thinking for the UK, with restorative justice (RJ) at its heart. Law rence Sherman, Wolfson Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University, and his co-author, Heather Strang, have evaluated evidence worldwide for the first time, and come up with conclusions that sound like manna for any crisis-swamped Home Secretary.
According to Sherman and Strang's research in Australia, the US and Britain, RJ has been proved to reduce repeat offending by up to half. It has doubled, or more than doubled, the offences brought to justice by conventional means, has reduced crime victims' post-traumatic stress. And it could slash costs. Controversially, it appears to work better for more serious types of crime.
Restorative justice has been used as an alter native or adjunct to the criminal system from America's death row, where relatives of murder victims speak to condemned perpetrators, to Dudley Zoo, in the case of a gang of youngsters who kicked a wallaby to death. Normally, the victim and the offender meet along with relatives and mediators - often specially trained police officers - who help draw up agreements, designed to allay victims' fears, and chart a course of action, such as drug treatment, that will stop the perpetrator reoffending. The tough-on-crime lobby may shrink from such collegiate problem-solving. But Sherman says: "The main question is what works - not what the bastards deserve. In giving vent to our own temper, we only make things worse."
The number of prisoners in England and Wales is at a record 80,000 and rising. Government sentencing guidelines mean longer jail terms, and the lack of drug treatment, rehabilitation and education contributes to a reoffending rate of 76 per cent. Women and the mentally ill are warehoused in institutions that cannot cater for their needs or safeguard their lives. Self-harm and suicide are rife, and 29 young boys have died behind bars since 1990. Apart from Luxembourg, Britain is the most intensive jailer in western Europe, squandering money and humanity to scant avail. Though crime is falling, with murder down 15 per cent for 2005 if you exclude the 7 July bombings, the public has rarely felt less safe.
In this climate, a mood in favour of RJ has been building. The Archbishop of Canterbury called for its adoption in his Prison Reform Trust lecture at the beginning of this month, and many judges, including the former Lord Chief Justice Harry Woolf, are vocal champions. Rob Allen, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London and a member of Sherman's steering committee, says: "The current crisis in the Home Office clearly exposes the limits of relying simply on punishment to solve complex social problems. Properly resourced and led, restorative approaches promise a more productive way of tackling the harm alongside, and in some cases instead of, conventional criminal justice."
Researchers' randomised trials produced some startling results, notably among North umbrian teenage girls in trouble with the police. Half had an RJ conference; the others went into the criminal justice system. The RJ group of poor, violent white girls proved twice as likely to stay clear of trouble. Judging by the findings, the RJ conferences prevented 71 crimes for every 100 offenders.
RJ appears to work better with more serious crimes, such as robbery, than with victimless offences such as shoplifting. Researchers think that violent offenders may be persuaded to change their ways after realising how much grief they have caused victims, who are often similar to them. Sherman believes that crimes of high emotion may lead to greater remorse. For him, the single most potent argument for RJ is that it is much more likely to bring offenders to justice than a criminal system in which cases routinely fail for lack of witnesses or proof. But the rule of law, whether enshrined in sharia or the English statute book, has a cautious relationship with informal solutions.
Will Brown allow Britain's criminal justice system to be revolutionised on his watch? The Treasury was one of the first evangelists for RJ. Eight years ago, when the Home Office turned down a request for funding, one of the Chancellor's staff seized on the idea and offered funds.
Later, the Home Office relented, offering modest amounts. RJ gained a toehold, especially in youth justice, but the biggest slice of a £4.9m government grant went into testing the system on adult burglars and robbers, who met their victims at conferences held in London prisons. All the offenders went on to be sentenced at Crown Court, where the judge was made aware of any remorse, explanations or apologies offered.
These conferences were held in the presence of high-profile onlookers. The cream of the judiciary and ministers, including the Attorney General, watched an extraordinary experiment in justice. As the only journalist allowed to sit in, I saw the meeting at Pentonville Prison between a drug-addicted burglar and his victim, an elderly Turkish widow. Maria dared not leave her front room, where she slept on the sofa with a knife beside her. Her daughter and her son, a City lawyer, had had to sacrifice their independence and return home to care for their mother. Alexi, who had wandered into someone else's kitchen in search of money for a fix, had ruined a family's existence. He promised to go straight, and perhaps he did. His victim, faced with a needy wastrel rather than the monster of her imagination, had got her life back.
When the conference ended, amid tears and rapprochement, it was as if a seance had been ruptured. Back at the Home Office, an even sharper awakening was in store. Despite pleas by some judges, funding for the project was wound down, excellent police teams were disbanded, RJ lost its showcase, and victims - the undisputed beneficiary of restorative solutions - had a potential lifeline removed. Two years have passed, and critics talk of "the dead hand of the Home Office".
RJ is not short of cheerleaders. Charles Pollard, the former Thames Valley chief constable, says the Sherman report "quashes the idea of a fluffy solution in which offenders get off lightly. This is hard-edged research, and it [RJ] is a no-brainer." The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which funded the study's publication by the Smith Institute, has been a pioneer in the promotion of RJ. So has Cherie Booth. She told me, some time ago, that the government should do more. "If the evidence shows it [RJ] is successful, in particular in helping cut reoffending, I believe it could boost confidence in the criminal justice system."
Now that some hard evidence is on hand, could the Prime Minister's wife and the Chancellor, whose relationship is famously glacial, find a concordat in endorsing an alternative, if fallible, justice system? Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, warns that, despite its "distinctive benefits for offenders and victims", it should not be seen as "a magic bullet".
Despite widespread enthusiasm, some leading figures in criminal justice are said to be even more sceptical. And where RJ appears to work, important questions remain. When should it be used instead of court proceedings, rather than as a supplement? How can vulnerable offenders keep promises to stay off drugs or drink if they cannot get good treatment? What kinds of crime should RJ deal with? Canada reports success in domestic violence cases, and Strang and Sherman cite a successful Australian case in which a man who tried to kill his girlfriend's alleged rapist was dealt with through RJ rather than the courts.
There are still many mysteries as to why restorative justice works (or fails to work), and when, and on whom. Sherman and Strang concede that there is much work to do. Their report calls it "a powerful drug which needs to be carefully tested for specific kinds of cases before it is put into general practice".
The next step, they say, is to expand their research and run it to scale. Last month, King's College criminologists sent Brown a paper recommending a Restorative Justice Board, similar to the Youth Justice Board, and possibly annexed to a new Ministry of Justice. The projected cost for a board plus an RJ roll-out over the three financial years from 2008 to 2011 is £71m, £221m and £317m.
Treasury insiders say Brown has doubts about investment in such a major expansion. What works on a small scale may not, in his view, be replicated. In addition, the Chancellor is at pains to stress his "toughness". Some criminologists believe that, on criminal justice, you could not slip an Asbo between Brown and Blair. None the less, those close to the Chancellor say he is instinctively sympathetic to RJ as well as to its close cousin, community justice.
RJ is likely to appeal to him on two levels. The first is that a justice system re-rooted in humanity, compassion and mutual understanding fits with his championing of the good society and his targeting of "hearts and minds". The second imperative is cost. The Treasury has been reluctant to bankroll John Reid's eye-wateringly costly plans to build his way out of the jail crisis. It costs £35,000 a year to keep each offender behind bars at present, and RJ could yield substantial savings. So far, the evidence of success is modest, but growing numbers of criminologists, police officers and sentencers are arguing that the government must now build on the first worldwide evaluation of its benefits.
If Brown can be persuaded, then justice could face the most radical upheaval in memory. Assuming the proponents of RJ are right, the shift could begin to empty prisons, reduce reoffending and halt the criminalisation of children. The promises are not underwritten, but the alternatives are demonstrated every week by a criminal system in free fall. The question is not so much whether Brown dares take up the challenge of restorative justice. It is whether he dares not to.
The international experience
Research by Sophie Pearce
In Northern Ireland restorative justice (RJ) was legally enforced in the Justice Act 2002, in the form of "youth conferencing" for young offenders. A study of 185 meetings found that 85 per cent of victims received an apology they were satisfied with from the offender. Northern Ireland also has community restorative justice (CRJ), which is used to address low-level crime and neighbourhood disputes. The recidivism rate for the 400 cases dealt with by CRJ each year is estimated to be as low as 8 per cent.
RJ has also been successful in curbing crime in Australia and the US. In Canberra, recidivism fell by 84 per cent when offenders under the age of 30 were assigned RJ, while the number of offences brought to justice rose by 75 per cent for adolescent shoplifters and 45 per cent among violent offenders under 30. In Indianapolis only 15 per cent of violent offenders subjected to RJ reoffended within six months, compared to 27 per cent of those given standard punishments.
However, specific groups have shown discrepancies. Recidivism among Aboriginal youths and drink-drivers in Canberra actually rose when RJ was applied, and in Pennsylvania, young people arrested for theft were found more likely to reoffend if given RJ. None the less, in all these cases the samples were deemed too small to be conclusive.