Administering justice without courts

Restorative justice schemes have been shown to reduce crime but still lack political support


Garda Damian Long wasn’t hopeful of a great outcome when he got a teenager together with the woman whose car he had vandalised. The young man didn’t have much time for gardaí and didn’t look like he would accept the process, which was to involve each party having their say on what had happened.

“I was not hopeful about how it was going to go. I figured there was no need to bring tissues in here,” he says.

However, when the process started and people got a chance to explain themselves, the emotion got to the teenager. “I looked up and he was in floods of tears,” says Long.

It was one of the first restorative justice processes in which Long had been involved. “Beforehand, I was not sure I bought into the whole thing. It seemed a bit Oprah Winfrey-ish,” he told a recent conference, “but you do get moments where you look over and people are bosom buddies. You get people offering to cut their grass, do their shopping. It can get a bit Disney-ish,” he says.

Restorative justice, which aims to make amends for the harm done by an offender and rehabilitate them, has been practised by gardaí since the 1960s. At its core is the principle that communities should be given the power to deal with conflict. It is used in countries around the world, some extensively such as in Australia, Canada and the US, where it is applied to even for serious crime, such as murder and rape.

The 2001 Children’s Act put a specific focus on diverting young offenders away from the criminal justice system and using detention as a last resort. Any child under 18 who commits an offence and admits to it must be considered for a Garda Diversion Programme.

This can lead to the setting up of meetings, known as restorative justice conferences, with the offender, their parents and sometimes their victim sitting down to tease out what led to the crime and allow the victim a chance to have their say.

“There is an exchange that goes on that you don’t get in a court setting,” says Dr Paula Kenny, a lecturer in Sligo Institute of Technology who has done research into restorative justice in Ireland.

“The victim gets to have their say and often realises that they were not personally targeted for a crime. It is also allows the young person to get over the crime. In a court you get sentenced and you are labelled as being whatever you did, a thief and burglar or whatever. In this you don’t have the same labelling,” Kenny adds.

Proponents say while the schemes can cost money in terms of training and resources but in the long run costs are kept down because it reduces the number of people sent to prison.

Figures from Northern Ireland, where restorative justice is used extensively, show 37.7 per cent of young offenders who were involved in a restorative justice programme reoffended. This compared with 70.7 per cent of those who got prison sentences and went on to reoffend.

Schemes are also in operation in Ireland for adults who are first-time offenders and commit certain crimes which will not result in prison sentences such as public order offences, drug possession and theft.

In Nenagh and Birr, a reparations panel meets the offender, with the victim also present sometimes, where a contract for making amends is drawn up.

Between 1999 and 2007, 86 per cent of contracts involving 105 cases referred to the Nenagh project were completed, according to the National Commission on Restorative Justice, which looked into restorative justice in Ireland and abroad.

A programme in Tallaght involves a reparation panel and also a chance for mediation between the victim and perpetrator.

Non-accusatory language
A Garda-cautioning scheme is also in operation around the State which allows offenders to receive a caution for a crime if prosecution is not considered in the public interest. This scheme most recently came to light last week when Seán Quinn jnr received a caution after a disturbance on a train.

Outside of the criminal justice system, “restorative practices” are being used in various settings such as schools, workplaces and prisons to deal with conflict. It involves using non-accusatory language and often brings together all parties to a conflict to explain themselves with a trained facilitator present.

Tallaght west operates a number of programmes in schools, youth centres and neighbourhood groups and hopes to declare itself a “restorative community” later on this year. Some examples include anti-social behaviour being dealt with in the community by parents, neighbours and youth workers.

“It is about reducing conflict. You can’t eliminate it but you can manage it,” says Marian Quinn, chief executive of the Child Development Initiative, which trains people and helps to run programmes on restorative practices.

“When you bring in restorative practices, young people quickly demand it because it gives them a sense of social justice,” she adds.

Towards Healing, an organisation which provides counselling to people abused by Catholic priests, has also introduced a programme which allows victims to meet representatives of the church.

“People will come to us after the courts who are left disappointed by the criminal process,” says Melissa Darmody, the organisation’s clinical director. “Some of them want an acknowledgement or a dialogue with the church.”

But while restorative practices are taking place formally and informally around the country, some are calling for a national body to be set up to oversee training and practice in the area.

Confronting behaviour
The National Commission on Restorative Justice recommended that more cases should be referred to youth and adult programmes and that a legislation was needed to ensure programmes were delivered in a consistent way.

“It is limping along and it will continue in this way until something happens. It needs a recommitment from the Government,” says Kieran O’Dwyer, an adviser on restorative justice projects who previously worked in the Garda and the prison service.

Restorative justice also remains controversial because it is seen by opponents as a way of allowing criminals to escape justice. “Confronting their behaviour is the hardest thing for offenders to do. It is easier to go to court,” says Kenny.

However without momentum from the Government to push the policy, many good projects around the State will be wound up whenever the individual who is driving them moves on to other work, she says. “The political will is not there to back it because it is not seen as a vote winner,” Kenny adds.

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