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Taking risks with victims

03 May 2013

RESTORATIVE justice, with its integral element of forgiveness, is naturally popular within the Churches. The introduction of community resolution in 2008, and the establishment of the Restorative Justice Council in 2010, were significant developments. The increased use of community resolutions suggests that they are now seen by police forces and victims as a credible alternative to the traditional criminal-justice system. They enable victims to be consulted in the treatment of the offender, who is persuaded to apologise and, perhaps, pay compensation. In return, he or she escapes having a criminal record, and, the theory goes, is less likely to reoffend.

Two examples are given of the sorts of crime where a community resolution is fitting: two elderly Sikhs who threatened each other with garden implements, and two 11-year-old boys who shoplifted sweets. It was disturbing this week, therefore, when the Labour Party, after a Freedom of Information request, reported that, in 2012, more than 33,000 cases of violence against the person were resolved this way, an increase of more than 20 per cent on 2011. The inference drawn by the Labour Party is that the police forces, tempted by an option that re- quires far less paperwork and staff time, have been persuading victims to choose restorative justice in inappropriate cases. There is a parallel with the use of the police caution. There were about 200,000 last year, fewer than previously, but applied in a number of serious cases, including rape, sexual assault, and burglary. A Ministry of Justice review is under way.

The Restorative Justice Council has previously said that decisions about applying restorative justice should be taken out of the hands of the police and given to "a trained restorative-justice facilitator working to national standards". It is particularly concerned about domestic violence, suggesting that restorative justice should be introduced only in certain circumstances, such as when the partners are no longer living together, and when the risk of harm can be managed "by senior restorative-justice practitioners who have had specialist domestic-violence training". The council's website lists fewer than 40 accredited practitioners (although many more associates). Community resolutions were used in 2488 domestic-violence cases last year. It must be deduced that few of these couples had the benefit of expert help.

Restorative justice has the potential to change thinking about crime and punishment in this country, but it rests on a knife edge. It will take only a handful of high-profile failures to discredit the whole system. At its heart, it invites the victim to take the risk of forgiving the perpetrator. It would be irresponsible not to manage this risk with the utmost care.

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