Restorative justice works better in more serious cases, including violence, where there are more emotions needing a response;  but the government’s 15 experimental neighbourhood justice panels, which have no central funding, are focused on relatively minor anti-social behaviour, some of which may not even be criminal.

Opportunities are being missed. The Crime and Courts Act 2013 allows prosecution to be deferred to allow for compensation, donation to a charity, or disgorging profits from the alleged offence; but it applies only to corporate offenders such as firms, not to individuals, and there is no opportunity for their victims to meet the directors in person (rather than underlings or lawyers) to tell them, face-to-face, the human effects of their mis-selling of insurance or pharmaceuticals or their pollution of the environment.

The Act also allows sentencing to be deferred to give an opportunity for restorative justice;  but prosecutors, probation officers and courts cannot refer cases to restorative justice if no service is available locally to provide it.

Where restorative justice has been introduced, for example in Thames Valley, it is working well.  So it is disappointing to see it criticised for the wrong reasons. In April, Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, complained about the number of cases being dealt with by community resolution.

It is odd to see saving police time and paperwork presented as somehow dubious.  Police used to have to choose between charging someone (possibly leading to a ‘crime cleared up’, but saddling the person with a conviction), or recording an unsolved crime (bad for statistics), or taking no further action. Now ‘restorative disposals’ can count as positive outcomes, which are good for community cohesion, besides saving police and court time on minor cases.

Prosecution is not necessarily the best response to wrongdoing. Even crimes labelled ‘violent’ do not all cause serious injury. They often involve former friends, neighbours or colleagues, and mediation can help them back on speaking terms.  Indeed, applied at an earlier stage it might have prevented the violent outburst.

After crimes by a stranger, victims commonly want to know ‘Why me?’ Hate crimes (attacking people merely because they are black, gay, disabled, foreign, or otherwise different) arise from ignorance and stereotyping, and a restorative process is better suited to overcoming these than conviction and punishment.

...The big question is, who will make it happen? The probation service, now being severely cut, is unlikely to have the time. Free-lance facilitators cannot guarantee continuity, and have no structure for support and supervision. The commercial sector operates to values which have little in common with restorative ones.

In the age of the Big Society, conflict resolution and restorative justice could be provided by local mediation services in each locality, overseen by a national NGO. Many cases can be handled by trained lay mediators (as in Norway, Finland and the Netherlands, and in some places in the UK), others by staff. If the government is serious about restorative justice, there should be a mechanism for funding it from the resulting savings in other parts of the system (a new adaptation of payment by results).

We need a strategy to spread better understanding of restorative justice and the impetus to put it into effect. About 30 years ago many local groups were formed to spread Victim Support. With guidance from a national body such as the Restorative Justice Council, could local faith groups and others do the same thing, taking up the challenge by helping to set up mediation services nationwide?

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