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18 December 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:09pm

Restorative justice can be life-changing – but it’s under threat

More than just money is needed to save it. 

By William Riley

In the safety of my own house, I wandered upstairs to get my gym things when I was startled to come across a burglar. Being 6 foot 4 and a regular oarsman, my instinct kicked in as he tried to make a run for it. Perhaps stupidly, I grabbed him.

I floored him but he got up and ran to the kitchen, where he started rifling the draws, I imagined looking for a knife. I panicked, and thinking of a scene from CSI, I yanked his jacket down from the back, blocking his arms. He kicked and screamed at me, as I started yelling for help and bundling him out onto the street. After a fair bit of blood was spilled, a police car arrived and we managed to get him cuffed and under control. I was taken to hospital for stitches to a head wound while he ended up in court.

Two weeks later a police officer, on one of their regular victim visits, persuaded me to go and meet the man who had hospitalised me. I had found it hard to sleep; in fact I couldn’t even put the key in my door without thinking someone would be behind it. So I felt I wanted to see the man responsible, to make him understand what he had done, and to find out why he’d done it.

It turned out that Peter – his real name – was a serial offender, spending 18 of his 48 years in institutions, a drug addict and alcoholic. Yet after our meeting, more than 10 years ago, he felt motivated to go straight, he has dried out and is an author, public speaker working full time trying to put right the damage he has done. I can even say he is now my friend. My nightmare turned into a transforming experience for victim and criminal alike thanks to this process of restorative justice.

Victim restored, criminal rehabilitated. Our very personal success led us to work with Sir Charles Pollard, Britain’s foremost authority on restorative justice, to campaign for the government to provide such services to all victims of crime. We have been remarkably successful: the Ministry of Justice has allocated £29m to police and crime commissioners in the last two years to set up restorative justice services across the country.

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And yet it’s not working.

Money has bought superb training for facilitators and practitioners, and much greater awareness of the benefits to victim and offender. But more money has not brought us to a tipping point, where victims know what restorative justice can give them and in consequence actively seek to meet their offender in conferences which are being conducted daily all over the UK.

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Put simply we were hoping that this money would create more conferences, more stories of success, more publicity, more awareness, more victim push and therefore even more conferences. However, I am afraid that despite the money and resource we are currently in a reverse cycle.

The majority of victim frontline contact is still with police, prison and probation officers who are more used to dealing with offenders and not with traumatised victims. Generally the more training of restorative justice facilitators the more caution to adhere to best practice, the longer preparation time the greater the cost. The more time spent with the victim explaining the process tends to create suspicion about what exactly awaits and can deter the less committed or busy participant. As with many services reliant upon agency cooperation, a silo mentality of the involved agencies often prevents information being shared. Thus, despite the money, awareness and good will, there are simply not enough conferences happening. All these superbly trained facilitators are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Given all this, and subsequent poor victim take up, we need a victim-led sales unit in the Ministry of Justice, which under Michael Gove has become, unexpectedly for some, a centre for really creative thinking. This small motivated group could be responsible for bringing victims to the table. It should have access to cases in a specific area and be able to contact both victims and offenders alike. It should be able to triage the cases in order to create an efficient throughput and ensure the highest probability of success. A central group responsible for conference creation and accountable. The group would concentrate initially in a set area and once successful could be rolled out nationally.

In parallel, the government should enshrining the right to restorative justice in a Victim’s Bill of Rights. This would show the victim that the system is really on their side and ensure that restorative justice was available to all.

Restorative justice doesn’t need any new public money. It needs an imaginative leap to better manage the commitment they have already made. Charitable institutions are all too aware of the restorative justice issues and, frustrated by the lack of coordination to increase the number of conferences, I am sure they would fund this essential team. The people already exist, fully trained and they could hit the ground running.

I am afraid that unless something is done to increase the number of conferences restorative justice will end up in the pile of great ideas that turned out to be impossible to implement. Then people like me and you will be left to fend for ourselves when the next burglar surprises us in our own homes.

William Riley is chair of Why Me? a restorative justice charity.