Many jurisdictions, including Australia, Nigeria, the USA, New Zealand and Canada, utilise restorative justice at the pre-sentence stage. For those of us in England and Wales, however, the Northern Irish youth justice process is probably the best known example of restorative justice being fully integrated into the criminal justice process at this time (albeit only for juvenile offenders). Prior to sentencing, the Courts, in almost all situations, must refer cases to the dedicated Youth Conferencing Service, whose job it is to prepare, facilitate and follow up on restorative conferences involving offenders, victims, and the supporters of both parties. A comprehensive evaluation of this process revealed highly positive feedback from participating victims: 81% preferred restorative conferencing to the court process, while 88% said that they would recommend it to a friend. In addition, only 6% of plans were subsequently revoked due to non-compliance by the offender, which is particularly interesting when one considers that 26% of the referrals studied were either for serious offences or very serious offences; of the remainder, 53% were for intermediate offences, while only 21% were for minor offences. Importantly, the discretion of the Courts is not affected in Northern Ireland because they retain the power to reject the agreement made at the conference if they feel that it is more appropriate to impose an alternative sentence.
This process is similar in many respects to that envisaged by Schedule 15(2) of the Crime and Courts Bill, currently making its way through the British Parliament, which specifies that the judiciary in England and Wales may “defer the passing of sentence to allow for restorative justice”. Deferred sentencing, as outlined originally in s.22 of the 1972 Criminal Justice Act, enables the Courts to consider the conduct of an offender post-conviction, but prior to sentencing. Following recommendations to expand its use in the 2001 Review of the Sentencing Framework, deferred sentencing appeared most recently in law under Schedule 23 of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, which extended the definition of the word “conduct” and outlined a variety of requirements which the Courts can order of an offender whose sentence has been deferred.
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