Restorative Justice: time to talk it over?

March 10, 2022 § Leave a comment

So, this weekend at Liberal Democrat conference I’ll be putting forward an amendment to a policy motion that reaffirms and, more importantly, significantly extends the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to restorative justice policies – it’s a severely under-discussed area with immense potential to be a flagship part of how liberalising justice systems could work, and this post is here to tell you more about why and how.

For those who haven’t come across the concept before, restorative justice stands in contrast to procedural justice. The latter – which is the justice system you all know and probably have mixed feelings about – basically stipulates that justice comprises specific breaches of a legal code that have penalties attached to them. We therefore have police, who both directly enforce the law and , and a court system, which determines how people are penalised. Restorative justice is conversely justice as a system of mediation and restorative action between those causing and those on the recieving end of harm (who in some cases can, indeed, be the same people). The role of the professional facilitating the process is to provide a framework in which those discussions can take place, with the aim of providing both acceptable restitution for wrongs that have been done and of integrating those causing harm back into communities more effectively. Meetings can build, discuss, and put in place individualised plans for restorative action which can give victims and offenders a stronger voice in the outcomes of the process and their own futures than the procedural justice system allows.

Government research demonstrates that restorative justice provides an 85% victim satisfaction rate, and a 14% reduction in the frequency of reoffending. ”

UK Restorative Justice Council

We use restorative processes already in the UK justice system, albeit that they’re often severely under-utilised: whilst in theory it should be offered to all victims of crime, in practice this only happens in a shockingly low five percent of cases. But where they’re used, they work: reoffending rates are cut, victims of crime express higher satisfaction.

We use restorative justice in the UK, however, essentially only as something to run alongside procedural systems, and only as something accessible through police services, and that limits some of its potential. Offering the possibility of restorative justice as a more complete alternative system has been tried more in the US, where it has been developed from indigenous models and has had some notable success stories. This is partly because it significantly changes the incentive structure for offenders: the traditional legal system encourages offenders to deny everything until the latest possible moment, creating more pain for victims and a far lengthier and more expensive process for everyone involved. Accessing restorative services in place of the courtroom, especially if routes can be found that don’t always involve the police directly, may also help people in communities with low levels of police engagement and trust find effective justice and decrease other social problems.

Restorative justice isn’t a catch-all to solve every problem, and changing mindsets to get it into widespread use will take time and investment. It’s also important to stress that this is a system and a service that needs to be built, not something that will flower on its own: the role of a restorative justice facilitator is a difficult, serious professional task, and needs to be supported by additional staffing ideally at a local government level where councils may have the local knowledge needed to apply relevant resources effectively. The focus for using restorative justice in its own right should probably initially be towards non-violent and property related crimes where it is easiest for the public to envisage restitutive actions, though its use elsewhere suggests the long term possibilities are wider.

Liberals in the UK have traditionally been at the forefront of progressive thinking on policing and justice reform, from tackling heavy-handed policing to campaigning for rehabilitative prison services, and now is an important moment to embrace some of the possibilities offered by a more wholeheated endorsement of wider restorative justice use in its own right. As we focus on the high costs and lack of access to courtroom justice that have plagued that system in recent years, it would be wrong to fail to consider alternatives as well as fixes, and bad politics to pass on the chance for an approach that more effectively demonstrates our values.

That’s why this weekend, Liberal Democrat conference will get to debate an amendment I wrote on the motion ‘Swift Access to Justice’ which moves our position forwards on this in two important ways. First, it accepts clearly for the first time in party policy that restorative justice has the potential to be used in place of procedural justice, rather than as an addendum to the procedural system as at present. Second, it explicitly calls for routes to be made available to access restorative justice facilitation that do not always rely upon already overstretched police forces. These changes provide a stronger commitment to restorative justice, and demonstrate our values: taking an evidence-based approach to policy, tackling problems at the level of and in conversation with the affected communities, providing justice whilst seeing the value and needs of victims and offenders alike. My view is that it would make sense to redirect part of the funding that our previous manifesto committed to raising police numbers in order to provide this uplift at council level, though given that manifesto financial commitments change and the money spent is fungible, this isn’t specifically included in the amendment text. If conference commits to this policy, in any case, we’ll be heading down a significant new route that offers some very exciting possibilities for us as a party and more importantly for the public debate and the future of policy in this area more widely.

Restorative justice won’t work in all cases: like any policy solution, it’s not a magic wand. It is, however, something that we know works, that brings the values of liberty, equality, and community clearly to the forefront of how we approach justice, and on which we have a clear route forward to start arguing our case. We can’t just be hide-bound by looking at how to fix the procedural justice system – moving forwards will take thinking outside the box and seriously considering alternatives to procedural justice. This Saturday, the Lib Dems will have the chance to do just that.

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