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Restorative justice (RJ) is one of those approaches often advocated yet not often used. Despite its seeming advantages and the efforts of some advocates such as Margot Van Sluytman, it has not been widely implemented in Canada or most other countries. However Northern Ireland has been using restorative justice as the default approach in dealing with youth in the justice system for many years now.
Tim Chapman has written a lot about the use of RJ in Ireland, and is a staunch proponent and advocate. In a recent paper Chapman argues that greater use of RJ would “would enhance the quality of justice for both victims and perpetrators and lead to improved outcomes in relation to victims’ recovery from the harm of crime and to perpetrators’ reintegration and desistance from offending. Greater participation in the process of justice would also increase public confidence in the criminal justice process and reduce the pressure to imprison so many people.” It’s hard to argue against that!
Crime and public policy
Many critics of criminal justice policy argue that it is ineffective and inefficient – very expensive without making things much better. However Chapman says that people believe in justice because they see it as right, rather than because they see it as effective. “The content of the sentence is more significant to the public than… reducing the risk of reoffending.”
Chapman takes the view that “accommodating the participation of ordinary people in the sentencing process would both improve the effectiveness of sentencing and enhance public credibility in the whole system.” In most justice systems the focus is on the person who committed the wrong, not on the wrong itself and what might be done to repair the damage caused. It is this harm that causes anger among victims and in the public, yet the system typically offers little to the public other than punishment, which in itself does little to promote healing or improvement.
Sentencing, he suggests, has very little effect on crime rates. However many people do not see this lack of effect because nobody sees the crimes that are NOT being committed, and indeed most of the focus is on a very small number of cases where some may feel that a punishment has not been sufficiently severe. We rarely see a report of a punishment that is too severe, and usually that only happens when an individual is exonerated, typically many years after being sentenced.
Benefits to victims and to perpetrators
One of the most important aspects of restorative justice is the much greater attention it gives to victims of crime. Although governments often profess their concern for victims, current criminal justice processes in Canada largely exclude victims. In RJ processes, on the other hand, helping victims to feel better is a central focus, but it is also assumed that punishment is the not the best way to achieve this purpose.
At the same time, RJ, much more than traditional criminal justice, pushes those who committed a wrong to consider the harm they created and what they might do to make amends. Indeed, in many traditional justice processes those who committed the wrong are expressly prohibited from doing anything to try to make up for it. In RJ: “Actions are agreed, and commitments are made. Once the commitments have been completed, both victims and perpetrators can move on with their lives.” In this way the actions arising from a wrong can be tailored by those involved to provide the greatest benefit to everyone, instead of using the standard sentence approach of the traditional system.
Research shows benefits
Among the benefits of restorative justice as found in research cited by Chapman, including more than 10,000 cases in Northern Ireland over 15 years, are:
– Victims are less afraid that the offender will commit further crimes. Victims have lower levels of traumatic stress, are less angry, less likely to desire physical revenge and more likely to forgive. They are more likely to see apologies to them as sincere. Overall, crime victims are more satisfied with the way their cases are dealt with through RJ than through traditional course processes and are less focused on punishment.
– Those who committed the wrong also benefit. They value the opportunity not only to express but to exhibit remorse through positive actions, and to understand more fully the harm they created, which in turn leads to greater remorse. Youth involved in RJ report more positive attitudes to police, law and justice. Compliance with the commitments made in the RJ process is high, which often provides further benefits to victims.
Overall, both victims and offenders report high satisfaction rates – 85% to 90%, and “restorative justice, which has not been designed to reduce recidivism, has been found to reduce the risk of further harm.”
Chapman concludes, as have many others who study and advocate for restorative justice, that “Rather than prioritise retribution, rehabilitation and the protection of the public, justice would be served more effectively by placing reparation at the foundation of the sentence as both a means of addressing the harm to victims and the community and as an opportunity for perpetrators to demonstrate the sincerity of their remorse” through their actions.
Source: Tim Chapman, 2018. Fail better: Sentencing to protect the public or to restore justice? ERA Forum. Journal of the European Academy of Law.
Tim Chapman’s writings and videos of several of his presentations are available on the internet in various places.