In the second of our new ESRC-sponsored Ask the Expert seminars, Professor Joanna Shapland – Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Sheffield – discussed the future of restorative justice in the UK.
There is strong evidence of the benefits of restorative justice – both for victims and in lowering reoffending rates – but the use of restorative justice programmes in the UK remains limited.
Restorative justice brings those affected by crime into communication with those responsible for it, in an attempt for all parties to collectively resolve the harm caused by the offence and to find a positive way forward. Participation is voluntary – both for the offender and victim – and is conducted by a trained facilitator, with risks being assessed beforehand in order to ensure participants’ safety.
In the UK, the Crime and Courts Act 2013 allows for restorative justice to be accessible at every stage of the criminal justice process, for victims and offenders who are willing. The evidence base on restorative justice is highly persuasive, demonstrating positive outcomes for victims given the ability for their voice to be heard, and with randomised control trials demonstrating a 14% reduction in reoffending rates for offenders going through the procedure. Furthermore, victims of more serious offences find restorative justice most helpful, with direct meetings between the offender and victim being particularly beneficial.
In the context of high reoffending rates in the UK, clear evidence demonstrating a 14% reduction in reoffending for those going through the procedure is a highly promising finding. Add evidence of positive outcomes for victims and it seems everyone is a winner. Yet restorative justice is still little used in the UK. Provision is patchy: programmes are complicated and time-consuming to set up, with many affected parties across several disparate parts of the criminal justice system and related agencies. The growth of contracting has made matters even more complicated, with additional practical barriers to implementing schemes. Cases where victim and offender live in geographically different places and are represented by different police forces, agencies or providers, make matters even more difficult.
The legislative powers to implement restorative justice are already in place. Evidence on the benefits of restorative justice is fairly conclusive. However, provision of programmes is not yet happening. What can be done to help, and which barriers are there to overcome?
The first issue is low awareness and understanding: there is low public awareness of what restorative justice is – along with its potential benefits – especially among victims. There is also a patchy understanding in criminal justice agencies of the outcomes of restorative justice, and its role in the criminal justice system.
A second issue relates to restorative justice programmes in practice. Programmes could be monitored and evaluated, and best practice identified, upheld and maintained. This could also be helped by a government-based forum to discuss future policy and the way programmes are run.
International evidence offers some positive examples that can give encouragement that restorative justice programmes can be more widely used in the UK. Finland has incentivised the use of such programmes by making it easier – through a reduction in paperwork burdens – for police to refer offenders to them rather than decide to prosecute. New Zealand has made it mandatory for criminal justice decision-makers – including prosecutors and judges – to refer young offenders to restorative justice programmes. A success story within the UK is also provided by Northern Ireland, which shares this latter trait with New Zealand. The rest of the UK could learn from these examples to encourage greater use of restorative justice – and as a result both benefit the victim and lower reoffending rates.