Restorative justice is being increasingly used in Britain. So is it the .soft on crime, option, or a more powerful form of justice?

Will Riley was violently attacked by a burglar in his own house in 2002. The burglar, a heroin addict with a history of violent crime, beat him across the head with a cast iron oven top as Will struggled to get him out of his house. Months later, Will was still afraid to open the door to his own home, despite the fact that his attacker, Peter Woolf, was safely behind bars. Criminal justice had taken its course, but Will was still feeling the traumatic effects of the crime.

It was then that Will was approached with the offer of taking part in a study on Restorative Justice in prisons. As part of the study, he agreed to meet his attacker and go through what is called a Restorative Justice ‘conference’ – a process where victims actually meet offenders.

Will thought it could do no harm. Peter thought it was a good way to get out of his cell for an hour. As it turned out, the experience was more challenging and emotional than either man had expected. When Peter made the offhand remark, “When we first met…” as if they had had a cordial encounter, Will exploded, furiously telling Peter how he had destroyed his self-belief and any sense of security he had felt in his home. For the first time, Peter realised the impact his crimes had on other people’s feelings, on their emotional lives.

Six years later, despite initial doubts and cynicism at the beginning of the process, Will’s trauma has been dealt with and Peter is a reformed character. More than that, they now work together for a charity called Why Me? – an organisation they founded to promote Restorative Justice through telling their own story in film and print via their website.

Will Riley and Peter Woolf may fast be becoming Restorative Justice’s most famous sons, but thousands of people around the world point to RJ as a life-changing process.

But what is Restorative Justice? Is it, as some detractors suggest, a ‘soft option’ for criminals, a way for them to evade prison by trotting out some pretty words? Or is it, as supporters maintain, the only approach to crime that truly puts the victim first? More importantly for Christians, is it Godly?

The victim's option?

“If someone harms somebody else and also breaks the law,” says Kimmett Edgar, head of research for the Prison Reform Trust, “then the [current, mainstream] Criminal Justice system is going to come down on them about breaking the law.” A burglar goes to jail but the victim’s feelings of violation are not dealt with and their property is never returned. A man is assaulted in the street and his offender has to pay a fine, but not to his victim. These are examples of how the current approach of ‘retributive justice’ operates. “What is really radical about Restorative Justice,” says Edgar, “is that it focuses on harm and not on breaking rules.”

The key difference between Restorative Justice and the current system is found in its name. RJ seeks not to punish, but to restore. Restoration of relationships, property and peace of mind are common themes involved in RJ conferences and mediations (discussed in ‘Encounters with Truth’ box overleaf). Offenders admit guilt, face the consequences of their actions and are forgiven.

Marina Cantacuzino is founder of The Forgiveness Project, an organisation that seeks to promote forgiveness and restoration in a number of different contexts. “Restorative Justice views crime primarily as injury rather than lawbreaking and justice as healing rather than punishment,” she says. “It emphasises the accountability of offenders and focuses on providing assistance to victims. It’s about putting the victim centre-stage and it’s also about reintegrating both victim and offender back into the community.”

This focus on the victim is an important one. “I think that the failing in the retributive Criminal Justice system is that it excludes victims at every level,” says Cantacuzino. “Even when the offender gets several life sentences, often the victims will feel very under-served.”

“I think victims have often felt that the criminal justice system doesn’t do much for them, doesn’t take their needs into account,” agrees Jon Collins, campaign director at the Criminal Justice Alliance. “Restorative Justice is the opposite of that. Victims are absolutely central to it.”

Chris Igoe, information and policy officer at the Restorative Justice Consortium, agrees. “For victims, Restorative Justice is better on pretty much every level,” he says. Victim satisfaction rates within the regular Criminal Justice system are usually around 50 per cent or lower, as compared to a consistent 90 per cent or higher scored by RJ. “It’s also been proven to reduce stress levels [including posttraumatic stress] in victims, so they can return to work and get on with their normal lives.”

The soft option?

Restorative Justice is often offered as an alternative to custodial sentences. Some critics have called this a “soft option”, but Edgar disagrees: “Prison causes such obvious harm to people – breaking up families, destroying their economic opportunities, hardening their attitudes to peers and so forth – that it’s easy for the person in prison to see themselves as the victims in the situation. A prisoner is surrounded by people who are telling him: ‘It’s not so bad,’ ‘They’ll get the money back on insurance,’ ‘I’ve done worse,’ and so on. They are surrounded by a culture that neutralises the wrong that they have done instead of coming face to face with the harm that they have caused. So, in two ways, prison actually gets in the way of recognising and taking responsibility for what they’ve done. So much for the ‘hard option’.”

Tim Diaper of Prison Fellowship, a Christian charity that runs Restorative Justice programmes in prisons across the UK, says: “A lot of people see RJ as a soft option, but it is not. Because it doesn’t just let people off. It forces people to take a long hard look at what they’ve done and the impact that it’s had. And then it encourages them to make amends for it.”

Prison Fellowship runs the Sycamore Tree project, a less intense form of RJ ‘conferencing’, where offenders meet with victims of similar crimes to their own (though not their own victims). Even in a more removed situation, the effect is powerful. “In many cases, offenders will break down,” says Diaper.

A versatile option?

Restorative Justice can be used in many contexts, from settling employment disputes and setting up circles of accountability for jailed sex-offenders, to youth work on tough inner-city estates. Fran Wright is a Christian youth worker and Restorative Justice coordinator for Oxford Youth Works. “A lot of our work is more to do with healing emotional harm caused rather than criminal activity, like family issues,” she says. “RJ is particularly effective in these issues where there is deep-rooted emotional hurt.”

Louise and Marie (not their real names) are two young teenagers from Cutteslowe, an estate where Wright works. When she was 16, Louise ran away from home. Louise’s 14-year-old sister, Marie, was left to pick up the pieces. “When she left, I really hated her for leaving,” Marie says. “She’d left me to deal with everything and it kind of piled up on me.” Marie could not let go of her resentment and bitterness, and eventually an RJ conference was organised.

“It was horrible, honestly,” says Louise, “It tore me apart. I never cried so much in my life.” Marie agrees: “It was really emotional. It was really difficult, but we were able to tell each other what we felt. The RJ conference really helped because I stopped bringing up the past and tried to move on.”

“We’re a lot closer now,” Louise, now 17, says. “RJ is not an easy thing at all. It’s the hardest thing just to open up.” But, despite how hard it can be, Louise can’t recommend it highly enough. “Young people our age need RJ. If they’re in difficulties at home or school or just issues in general. It always leads back to crime, drugs, drink or whatever. RJ should be in every youth club to be quite honest. ”

The more effective option?

The strongest case in favour of Restorative Justice, however, is its proven effectiveness in reducing reoffending. Jon Collins and many of the other experts interviewed here, point to a Home Office study, undertaken by the Ministry of Justice and the University of Sheffield: “It shows that Restorative Justice can reduce the number offuture offences committed by people who go through RJ rather than the traditional criminal justice system.”

Kimmet Edgar provides some detail: “The combined effectiveness of different schemes is shown to reduce reoffending by 27 per cent. But in the best schemes it was as high as 55 per cent.”

While Edgar thinks the evidence for RJ’s effectiveness in reducing reoffending is strong, he is quick to point out that RJ is not a panacea. “No one comes out of an RJ conference with adequate housing or a job. There are various things that help someone on the road to not reoffending. RJ can help with some, but not all of those.”

There are, of course, dangers inherent in an approach that places so much emphasis on repentance and forgiveness. “Will some offenders want to do it to look good for parole and lower their sentence? Sure,” says Chris Igoe. But he points to the case of Peter Woolf: “Peter freely admits to only doing it because he wanted to get out of his cell for a few hours. But that didn’t stop it from changing his life.”

“People should know this isn’t a complete shot in the dark,” says Jon Collins. He refers to the fact that RJ is used successfully in New Zealand, Canada, several US states, Scotland and in Northern Ireland. “In Northern Ireland, as a result of the more rigorous RJ they’ve been doing with young offenders, they’ve actually been able to close a couple of secure centres – which, when you think of how we are having to open new ones, is quite extraordinary.”

The Christian option?

Restorative Justice, according to Tim Diaper, “sits very well with the Christian faith because Christianity is all about forgiveness and being given a second chance. A chance at redemption.” Certainly, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38–41 (where he rejects “eye for an eye” understanding of justice in favour of giving good things to those who harm us) make any case for Christian support for purely retributive justice quite hard, but RJ is not quite permissive forgiveness either.

“God very much wants us to face up to the things we’ve done wrong, and RJ is all about that as well,” says Fran Wright. “But the great thing is, once the sorry has been said and meant and realised, forgiveness is then possible.”

Wright’s colleague, Jon Holder, is a youth and community worker on the Cutteslowe estate, where RJ principles have been applied to heal social rifts and, in some cases, prevent criminal behaviour. “Christianity is heavily based on relationship and RJ is a tool for restoring relationships. Jesus came to put right the relationship that had gone wrong. We’re trying to mirror that with RJ.”

An under-used option

Despite all it has going for it, Restorative Justice is still only finding significant uptake in the Youth Justice system in the UK. Kimmett Edgar: “Every youth offending team is supposed to have RJ provisions. But the current situation is that only one per cent of victims of adult offenders have access to Restorative Justice, so ‘patchy’ is being kind.”

Chris Igoe thinks that the reason the government has failed to implement more Restorative Justice procedures, despite the extremely positive findings of Home Office research on reoffending and victim satisfaction, is to do with perception. “The government are hamstrung by their resources and by not wanting to be seen as being soft, even if it’s not justified. Even being perceived as being soft is enough to get the government to say we need to increase sentencing and to be more punitive. But there’s no way that’s going to get us out of this crisis.”

So, for now, Restorative Justice languishes in the relative hinterland of the UK criminal justice system. But it is growing in the fringes, and understanding of what it has to offer is growing in the other fields in which it is practised.

Fran Wright expresses a view of Restorative Justice that many of the people interviewed for this piece would share: “You just have to look at those restored relationships to know that this is a good and Godly thing and think: I want to be a part of it.”


Encounters with truth

Dave (not his real name) struggled constantly with guilt over taking a life. He had been convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. While in prison, he took part in a Sycamore Tree course and came to faith in Christ. Through a victim liaison officer, Dave sent his victim’s mother a letter, explaining how Sycamore Tree had changed his thinking. He wrote of how sorry he was and how badly he wanted to ask the mother’s forgiveness. Eventually, he received a reply to his letter. His victim’s mother wrote back, saying that she was thrilled he had experienced such a change. She told him that now she could forgive him, and consequently she could move on in her own life.

The Sycamore Tree approach is in many ways less intense than more traditional RJ approaches of ‘conferencing’ and mediation.

‘Conferencing’ is used where there is a clear victim and offender. A strict script is followed and supporters of both parties are invited and involved in what is a public process of shaming and redemption. Guilt is admitted and restitution decided communally.

Mediation is used in cases of mutual harm or where public discussions may cause more harm and usually only involves those involved in the incident or dispute in question. Its less structured approach allows for both parties to admit their part in any harm caused and can be a first step towards a more public ‘conference’.

No matter which approach is used, Restorative Justice encounters always bring people face to face with the harm they’ve caused and the damage they’ve done. And that is always a powerful thing.

Crime in the UK

England and Wales have a higher imprisonment rate than Libya, Burma, Malaysia and Turkey. Almost eight out of ten young male prisoners are re-convicted within two years of release. Crime committed by ex-prisoners costs the taxpayer £11 billion per year. One in three people released from prison will have nowhere to live. 150,000 children have at least one parent in prison. In the last ten years, 13 new prisons have been opened. By May 2003, nine of these were overcrowded. Two out of three women in prison serve less than six months. Nine out of ten young adults in prison say they used drugs before imprisonment, but only one in three young offender institutions provide intensive drug treatment programmes.(Facts from Smart Justice)

Restorative Justice on the web

These websites provide statistics, contact details and information about Restorative Justice:

The Restorative Justice Consortium Prison Fellowship Criminal Justice Alliance The Forgiveness Project Smart Justice Oxford Youth Works Why Me? Prison Reform Trust