Restorative justice challenges some of our assumptions about criminal justice. It allows offenders to play an active rather than a passive role and gives victims a voice. It concerns itself not just with violations of the law but also with repairing the harm that has been caused. And in a post-conflict society it can play an essential part in rebuilding the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.
We have been told about and observed ourselves restorative practices in NI which offer an inclusive, problem-solving and forward looking response to offending and are well embedded at statutory and community levels. Perhaps because of Northern Ireland’s difficult past, we felt there was a common understanding of the power and efficacy of using this approach in addressing the needs of young offenders and victims alike.
Aside from police-led diversionary disposals, youth conferencing is the means through which most young people’s offending is dealt with either by way of a diversionary youth conference directed by the PPS for less serious offences or by way of a court ordered conference. Approximately 1,800 referrals (which amount to about 15% of all young offenders) are made to youth conferences every year, of which about half are PPS referrals. Most referrals (over 80%) are male and over half are aged 16 or 17.
The process of youth conferencing is conducted in such a way as to maximise the chances of young people putting offending behind them. Conferences are led by skilled facilitators who communicate well with young people, their parents, victims and representative members of the wider community. There is considerable preparation prior to the conference to enable the full participation of all those attending. Young off enders talk about the crime they have committed and why they did it, which for some represents a real and diffi cult challenge. They are encouraged to confront the impact their behaviour has had on the victim and/or wider community and explore how to put matters right.