How can we enable more victims to take part in restorative justice?
One of the biggest challenges currently facing the restorative justice field is how to get more victims to participate. Here, the Restorative Justice Council’s chief executive Jon Collins discusses the findings of their recent work on this issue.
The RJC has recently conducted a research project on how to increase the number of victims taking part in restorative justice. The Ministry of Justice has stated that good quality restorative justice should be available to victims at all stages of the criminal justice system. It seems, though, that at present only a small minority of victims are being offered the opportunity to take part in what must always be a voluntary process.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales has revealed that in 2015-16 only 4.2% of victims of crime where the offender was known to the police recalled being offered restorative justice. As a result, the number of victims accessing restorative justice is a tiny proportion of all those who, we know from a robust evidence base, might benefit from participating in it. This is raising concerns among Police and Crime Commissioners, who are now key commissioners of restorative justice services, that it is simply not worth investing in its provision.
Three main issues
So how do we address this? If you’re looking for all the details on our research on this topic, the report is on our website. But based on the work conducted for it – which included interviews with victims, practitioners and service managers – there is no magic bullet. We had hoped to find a simple answer. But the reality is that no service has the solution. Some are further on than others, but nobody has the caseload that they would like to see or thinks that their model is operating perfectly. To me, though, three main messages emerged.
First, it is clear that we need to remove unhelpful restrictions on which victims can access restorative justice that are based on the type of crime that they have experienced. Restorative justice services should be starting with a potential pool of cases that includes every victim of crime, whatever the offence. This is not, however, always the case at present, with some services excluding, for example, all victims of domestic violence, sexual offences or hate crime.
This is something that needs to be addressed. Excluding, for example, victims of domestic violence from restorative justice is not only incompatible with the Victims’ Code (which states that “where victims ask to participate in restorative justice, they should not be automatically precluded on the basis of the crime committed against them”) but also prevents victims from accessing a service that could help them. Some victims may not be able to take part because the offender is never identified or refuses to take part, or because the process cannot be conducted safely, but they should not be excluded from consideration altogether.
Second, service design should focus on ensuring that the victim is in face-to-face contact with a fully-trained restorative justice facilitator at the first possible opportunity. While there are different models of service delivery, most services rely on referrals from other agencies to restorative justice services and/or the proactive identification of suitable cases by restorative justice providers from case information. However they are identified, though, victims are likely to be nervous about participating in restorative justice and unsure about how it will work and what it will involve. The best person to explain this to them is somebody who is experienced at guiding victims through the process. Ideally, therefore, the facilitator will make the initial offer of restorative justice. Where that is not possible then the focus should simply be on getting them into conversation as quickly as possible in the process.
Third, and linked to this, facilitators must have the right skills to engage with victims and support them effectively through the process. Given their centrality to the process, it is clear that restorative justice is much more likely to be successful where the facilitator is confident and competent at engaging with the victim. This is often complex and nuanced – for example, experienced practitioners noted that they never mentioned the term ‘restorative justice’ or tried to sell the process in their initial conversations with victims, but instead focused on the victim’s needs. The discussion of a restorative process flowed from that.
It is therefore essential that facilitators have proper training in working with victims. Yet many of the practitioners that we spoke to felt that the training that they had received did not equip them sufficiently to engage with victims. This needs to be addressed.
If these three lessons are learned, then the number of victims participating in restorative justice would increase. This would, in turn, create its own momentum. As more people take part, both criminal justice professionals and the public would better understand the benefits of restorative justice and support its use. All of this must be underpinned by ongoing support from leaders across the justice sector, including PCCs and the heads of justice agencies and institutions. If they can take the lead on promoting its use, the changes set out above will be eminently achievable.
The report of the RJC’s work on victim take up of restorative justice is available here.
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