Restorative justice is seen by many as a ‘soft’ option. Be that as it may, research shows that it reduces reoffending by 12 percent, and that’s surely what matters. Less offending means less victims of crime.
Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of victims who undertake RJ benefit too: as one Ministry of Justice study shows, rates of satisfaction among victims who attend RJ are very high, with 74 percent saying that they felt better after attending a conference, 77 percent saying they were satisfied with the overall experience and 80 percent saying they would recommend restorative justice to others.
Yardley pointed to a victim who was against restorative justice and dissatisfied with her experiences with the court system. Although she hadn’t participated in a conference, she wrote a letter that he called “powerful” and used to underscore the “outright stupidity” of the restorative justice “revolution” that had been “unleashed” on the courts. We don’t doubt that this victim’s concern is quite real, but for Yardley to use it as evidence that RJ is a failure is intellectually lazy and most certainly misleading – particularly couching the whole thing in typical shock-jock language.
Restorative justice works to build a dialogue between offenders, their victims and the community. It often involves meetings between these groups and the making of some form of amends. A good example of using certain restorative justice principles this is the Community Justice Panel (CJP) being run in Christchurch, established by Canterbury Community Law and the Police. The CJP works as an alternative to court for adult offenders whose crimes are relatively minor and who admit guilt. In consultation with the needs of the victim (where there is one) and members of the community serving on the panel, offenders are given conditions that can include paying reparations, attending treatment or support services, and doing community service. The focus is on seeking to provide awareness of the effect that it has on victims’ lives, and addressing the causes of the offending in order to prevent it in the future. If these conditions are not adhered to, offenders are referred to police and the justice system continues as it otherwise would have.
Again, research shows that this is working well and. A report by the Police from 2012 shows that the CJP's early results indicated success in reducing reoffending while also reducing the burden on police and the courts, and saving the taxpayer money.
With these successes as a background, the Key government is moving RJ from being a bit player to a key part of the justice process. Under section 24a of the Sentencing Act, cases are now required to seek the restorative justice option before sentencing can be completed.
Given the encouraging research results, we applaud this effort at reducing crime. Yardley, however, does not. But despite being couched in a mish-mash of the expected bluster and tough-on-crime rhetoric that keeps talkback radio alive, Yardley does identify an important concern – albeit one that is not actually his: that being some considered criticism that has come via Judge Alastair Garland, who points out that despite good intentions, the policy was not grounded in practicality. Despite 70 cases a week being referred to RJ, the services in place are prepared to handle only about ten. This is something, Garland makes very clear, that would have been easily identified had the judiciary been consulted in advance. Instead we’re seeing a well-intentioned plan being bogged down by entirely foreseeable issues.
The blame for this, Yardley claims, falls on a mysterious cadre of “uber-liberal academics”, who were too busy not existing to be available for comment. In reality the haste is entirely less conspiratorial and comes from government officials who are under pressure to achieve the Department of Corrections’ brave challenge of reducing reoffending by 25 percent by 2017.
As these changes are rolled out, let’s catch problematic issues and sort them out rather than creating panic in newspaper columns. Nobody likes to see the government making edicts that aren’t grounded in reality, but the facts show that restorative justice has a lot to offer as a tool for reducing crime.
So we’re back to a familiar point: we mustn’t be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we all keep our hats on while things are a little choppy, we may find we have a lot to gain. And let’s face it – the status quo is hardly flash.