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Criminal justice

Why restorative justice matters for victims, offenders and communities

A portrait of a middle-aged man sitting in a park.

Imagine your home is broken into. Seeing, or even just imagining that happening, it’s an image that’s going to stay with you isn’t it? For many victims, thoughts and memories of the person who caused the harm can haunt them, and dredge up memories of their traumatic experience.

But imagine you could meet that burglar, or receive a letter from them apologising for the harm they caused. Quite quickly that fear and otherness would begin to dissipate, and you would see each other’s humanity. This is restorative justice. It’s a powerful tool that puts the victim and the person who caused the harm into communication – helping both to examine and understand why the incident happened.

Valuable context

In many cases, the restorative process shines a light on the issues or vulnerabilities the harmer is facing. For example, we know that people who use hard drugs commit up to half of all acquisitive crimes – that’s things like shoplifting, burglary, robbery, car crime, fraud, drug dealing – to fund their habit. Seeing someone as a vulnerable person is very different to perceiving them as a violent aggressor, and knowledge like this helps victims to understand what led that person to crime.

The insight goes both ways. Just as the victim gains valuable context into the harmer’s life, so too the offender begins to see the impact of the actions on the lives of an individual or community. This is not to say that the restorative process can cure an addiction or solve complex social issues straight away, but understanding the damage they’ve caused is often a first step towards addressing destructive behaviour.

Breaking the cycle

At Catch22, we believe that reflection is beneficial at any stage in the criminal justice system and we’ve ensured our harm reduction programmes in Thameside Prison are underpinned by restorative practice. Our Gang Workers help prisoners break the cycle of violence by contextualising violent actions, working on decision making skills and finding new responses to familiar situations. And it works: since the service was introduced in in 2013, the peer-on-peer gang related violence rate has reduced by 50%.

Resolving the conflict quickly and definitively is essential for any prison community to function. While serving a custodial sentence, people live in incredibly close quarters and see the same individuals every day, so a failure to address issues is often what causes the situation to escalate and cause serious harm. In this sense, prisons aren’t all that different from society as a whole.

But whilst we know that strong and connected communities improve the quality of our lives, we’re not naïve. All communities have a degree of disorder, and it’s how we respond to those incidents and to individuals involved that ultimately makes our communities resilient.

Across communities

Communities can take many forms of course, and restorative practice can heal rifts within online communities too. Our pan London Restorative Justice service (Restore:London), recently facilitated a meeting between someone who’d posted anti-Semitic tweets, and a person representing the Jewish community (known as a community victim). Stripping away the anonymity and distance of social media left an initially resistant harmer with a clear understanding of how his tweets could be interpreted, and the damage they had caused.

Once he realised this, he was grateful for the chance to apologise. The community victim’s conclusions echoed the words of the late Jo Cox, and she said the process helped her realise that she and the harmer have ‘more in common than that which divides them’, a perspective made possible by clear communication and humility on both sides.

Through our work across the justice sector, we know that those who experience the restorative process are less likely to reoffend than those who are punitively punished. That’s not to say that we think of it as a replacement, more that we believe it can enrich a sentence and greatly aid the rehabilitation process. Helping someone to understand the impact of the actions is a significant deterrent, and can stop the often repeated cycle of crime. It can heal rifts in relationships and in communities, and foster a greater sense of empathy and understanding. Investing in and promoting restorative justice for both victims and offenders benefits us all.