Policy Proposal #4 for the Labour 2015 General Election Manifesto:
Criminal justice suffers from a lack of public confidence. It is easy to see why.
The legal system can appear an unwelcome place where the victim – and not the offender – is truly on trial. Many victims unsurprisingly report dissatisfaction with their treatment. Sometimes they feel like bystanders in trials they might have affected them profoundly.
This problem is not an accident. The trial is designed so that justice is impartial, but must this require we silence victims about sentencing decisions?
The issue raises an important anomaly. While victims can provide crucial evidence in favour of an offender’s conviction, victims’ voices are often silenced when we consider sentencing options.
Most criminal cases – over 90 per cent – never go to a full trial. Offenders plead guilty and a sentence is passed. Victims lack their day in court to express openly the wrongs they have endured and their views about moving forward in the name of swift justice.
Our challenge is improving public confidence in criminal justice without alienating victims further. In fact, we can make this system better by giving victims a greater voice in sentencing decisions.
Restorative justice is an approach revolutionising criminal justice. It is many things criminal justice is not. Whereas criminal justice is formal, rule-laden and conducted in court by legal professionals, restorative justice is informal, flexible and conducted by ordinary citizens. The object is to ‘restore’ the law-abiding status of a fellow citizen.
Restorative justice allows victims to tell offenders the real impact of the crime, to get answers to their questions and receive an apology. It also gives offenders a chance to understand the true impact of their actions and do something constructive to repair the harm they have caused. This is often done in a conference-like setting where the victim and offender meet. Restorative justice is a promising way to achieve more effective criminal justice.
Evidence suggests victims and offenders alike report higher satisfaction with restorative meetings. Restorative justice has reduced reoffending by up to 25 per cent in contrast to alternative measures. And there is welcome news for any government interested in making savings as at least one study found £9 could be saved for every £1 spent through restorative justice.
This success is a product of hearing more voices. Victims can express the impact of crimes on them and this communicates an important message to offenders they need to hear. One central way to reduce future reoffending is to make perpetrators more aware about the harm they cause.
But offenders benefit as well because we hear their voice, too. This can help identify not only what steps they might take to address their past crimes, but also how we might help them overcome future criminality. This is because we can better target the needs of victims and offenders through a restorative conversation about the past with a view to the future.
But there remains a serious hurdle for extending the benefits of restorative justice more widely. This hurdle is that the current practice of restorative justice does not include imprisonment as a possible option. This limits its applicability to cases of relatively minor crimes and youth offenders.
Some argue the public simply won’t support their greater use. The worry is restorative justice might be seen as a ‘soft touch’ where offenders might ‘escape prison’.
This rests on two mistakes. The first is thinking what people want is harsher, not better, justice. If restorative justice can effectively reduce reoffending and criminal costs while improving victim satisfaction, then this is an approach that can win public confidence.
The second mistake is failing to include a greater punitive element in restorative justice, or what I call ‘punitive restoration‘. If victims, in line with magistrates, have some power over the offender’s punishment, including suspended prison sentences, restorative conference could be used more widely and could help further reduce reoffending.
Victims have a say on outcomes in restorative meetings and the effects have been highly promising. It is time to expand the range of possible outcomes to include a more punitive element. This can ensure restorative justice is not seen as an easy option without undermining the success this approach might build on further.
We can and should improve public confidence in criminal justice by giving victims a greater voice in sentencing decisions through a restorative justice model. Justice need not require victims are silenced, only that they don’t have the only say. Restorative conferences and punitive restoration offer an important new perspective on how justice can be achieved.
See ProgressOnline piece here and YourBritain website.