Restorative Justice – An East Riding Perspective – Sarah Sherwood
Restorative Justice – An East Riding Perspective – Sarah Sherwood
Restorative Justice, its ‘Wikipedia’ definition – ‘an approach to justice in response to a crime’, ‘to get communication between victim and offender in order to try and repair harm’, albeit this definition doesn’t touch the sides as to the power of Restorative Justice.
I am the Restorative Justice Officer for the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Youth Offending Service and have been in post since mid April 2018. Prior to that, my previous roles were predominantly ‘enforcement roles’. I don’t feel I fully understood the power of victims and making them central to our restorative practices.
So how does Restorative Justice practically work? And, also, how do we know it works?
Every victim of a crime by a young offender in the East Riding of Yorkshire that consents is contacted by me. This is my opportunity to initially:
- Gain the victim’s thoughts and feelings about the offence to produce a victim statement – much like that of the Police, but with more focus and emphasis on outcomes and restorative justice.
- Establish the victim’s ‘Safety Scale’ – are they fearful? Does provision need to be put in place to ensure they do feel safe?
- Discuss what is happening with the offender – if it is an Out of Court Disposal (OOCD) – Triage, Caution, Youth Conditional Caution – explain their views can be put forward at the OOCD Panel and explain what these disposals mean. If it is a Referral Order, Youth Rehabilitation Order or Detention and Training Order, explain their views can be put forward at the planning stages of all these orders and again explain what this means.
- Discuss and offer restorative justice.
So what do I offer in terms of restorative justice? I will always initially offer face to face contact with the offender to the victim. This is very daunting for a victim to actually meet those that have caused them so much harm, but is very powerful. I then give the victim other options such as ‘shuttle restorative justice’, with me acting as a ‘go between’ the victim and offender, exchanging their questions and views. Shuttle restorative justice is a fantastic preparation technique for both victim and offender to then proceed onto a face to face meeting, as both have a better understanding of how each other is feeling and what they want to know of each other. The last option offered is a letter of explanation, sometimes known as letter of apology, but I tend to stay away from ‘letter of apology’ as a term because I have found a lot of victims want answers rather than apologies. Our practice, in terms of getting a young person to complete the letter of explanation, has also changed. Instead of just asking a young person to write a letter to the victim, with no prior knowledge or direction of what the victim actually wants to hear (this is extremely difficult for a young person and may cause barriers potentially leading to non-engagement), I will pass the victim’s views and questions to the young person to have in mind whilst completing their letter, giving the letter so much more meaning and purpose for both offender and victim. We have also experienced cases whereby the victim will reply to the offender via letter.
Ultimately, I believe face to face contact is the best form of restorative justice, but this is not always feasible, hence why the other options are available. Rationale could be: risk assessments – concerns over the safety of either party or one party not willing to engage. The fundamental aspect of restorative justice is that it must be balanced. For example: face to face meeting, only the young person and the victim will be invited and it must be voluntary. No carrot and stick, ‘if you do a conference we’ll reduce your order’. This has a strong link with the motives of those partaking in restorative justice; I have to ensure that the victim won’t be re-victimised or that the young person will come to any harm.
This is why relationship building, and time, is essential during restorative justice. Below is an overview of a case study;
Face to face meeting with offender and victim of armed robbery with a weapon, held at a Young Offenders Institute.
In this case, I did two home visits to the victim, regular telephone contact and emails partly to advise the victim of the processes but mainly as an emotional support for the victim. This was an opportunity to explore how she may feel in the meeting, what she may be expecting and what she wanted to know from the offender, some of the victims direct quotes; ‘why did you do it?’, ‘I am old enough to be your mother, what did she say?’, ‘what did you think afterwards?’
In this case, I also conducted Shuttle Restorative Justice. I took questions and comments from the victim to the offender and reciprocated the offender’s answers back to the victim. This was a good opportunity for me to get a better understanding of each party’s motives and needs from the meeting. This is also helpful if either party freezes and requires a prompt to engage conversation.
A major difference with this conference was that it was held at a Young Offenders Institute; therefore I was acutely aware that this was extra stress for the victim being in a prison environment. I did my best to prepare her by doing an imaginary journey into the prison so she could get a description of what the environment was like and what to expect.
The conference was very successful, with outcomes of the offender apologising and victim accepting, also a conversation about how the victim felt after the offence, with the offender showing empathy in his response ‘I am sad to hear that and I didn’t mean for that to happen’, the offender also stated he would not be going near the victim’s home town where the offence took place once released. This offered reassurance to the victim.
Both the victim and the offender were debriefed after, with the Offender stating ‘the meeting really helped me’. Similarly, after speaking to the victim, she stated she was ‘happy’ she was part of the meeting and that she had more understanding of the offence now, so felt more confident in going out and living her life as she did prior to the offence. She also asked whether she could meet the co-accused, the offender’s brother.
So this shows restorative justice can be applied to most, if not all, offences, as long as the fundamental aspects are adhered to – risk, motives and voluntary participation. Also, if this route is taken, unlike most disposals or orders within the criminal justice system, there is no ‘time tag’ i.e. completion within 12 months. It is malleable, flexible and based on the needs and pace of the victim and offender- sometimes restorative justice completion time scales will supersede that of the young person’s order.
So the main question is: how do we know Restorative Justice is making a difference? With the work I am currently doing, I cannot yet review this as it require time to do a comparative of re offending rates with participants of Restorative justice. But I can evaluate my victims and offenders Restorative Justice journeys from what I have seen and experienced. Restorative Justice has changed both offenders and victim’s lives. I have seen offenders take ownership and accountability of their offences, showing emotion and empathy towards victims, reflecting on how they ‘didn’t mean for a victim to feel like they did’, which are all desistance factors for not re-offending.
My role has really restored my faith in humanity, for victims to be offered the opportunity to speak to the person that has caused them so much pain and yet offer them comments such as ‘I don’t want this to ruin your life’. I feel my role supports victims to help to repair their own lives by getting answers, following the trauma of the offence
I do appreciate our base line is re-offending rates but I feel we need more emphasis on qualitative data as it offers so much strength in how the victim feels, how safe they feel, how empowered they feel by the experience and how much faith they have in the criminal justice system. Qualitative data is much harder to obtain, but surely has much more impact, don’t let this be a barrier for us as professionals, having to justify all by numbers rather than listening to those affected in their own words.
Sarah Sherwood, Restorative Justice Officer, East Riding of Yorkshire, Youth Offending Service.