Legislation introduced to protect victims of crime two years ago resulted in the cessation of restorative justice meetings between juvenile offenders and victims.
Since 2001, gardaí have used restorative justice to give young offenders an insight into the harm caused by their actions and a sense of closure to their victims. In its most common form, restorative justice involves structured meetings between offenders and victims, often as an alternative to a court hearing, with offenders escaping with a caution instead of a conviction. Offenders are also sometimes asked to send letters of apology to their victims.
In 2017, the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act introduced a range of new provisions to prevent the retraumatisation of victims including strict requirements that gardaí safeguard the interests of the victims when offering a restorative justice meeting.
As a result, juvenile liaison gardaí stopped offering restorative justice to victims entirely in 2017 before the legislation was enacted in November of that year.
The Garda received advice that it would need to carry out a risk assessment on every victim before offering restorative justice. It was determined this would be an excessive drain on resources. Instead, restorative justice was only used for victimless crimes such as drug possession and certain road traffic offences, the latest available figures show. This involved a structured conversation between the offender and a trained facilitator about the impact of their crime. The offender was then given a “restorative caution”, meaning the matter did not proceed to court.
The cessation of offender-victim meetings is a cause for concern for proponents of restorative justice.
"The research suggests that restorative justice can help reduce reoffending and support victim recovery, and also that the parties report high levels of satisfaction with the process," said Dr Ian Marder, a criminology lecturer in Maynooth University. "The largest benefits tend to emerge when victims and offenders have a chance to communicate directly, which is why this process should be offered as often as possible." According to a 2006 study, 93 per cent of victims were happy with the process.
The refusal of gardaí to offer offender-victim meetings lead to a 28 per cent drop in the use of restorative justice for youth offenders in 2017. This accelerated a declining trend in the use restorative justice by gardaí. Between 2014 and 2017, its use in the Garda juvenile diversion programme dropped by over 50 per cent.
In 2017 restorative justice was used in 477 referrals to the programme, 2.38 per cent of 20,008 referrals, down from 993, or 5 per cent of 19,854 referrals in 2014.
Last year, the committee overseeing the juvenile diversion programme recommended strengthened guidelines be issued to gardaí to allow them to resume offering restorative justice to victims.
In a November 2017 report, it anticipated this would lead to an increased use of victim-centred restorative justice. The figures for 2018 have not been published. A Garda spokesman declined to release them when requested.
Meanwhile, the availability of restorative justice for adult offenders remains patchy with programmes covering only small parts of the country, Dr Marder writes in a forthcoming article for the Irish Probation Journal.
In 2011 a commission established by the Department of Justice to examine the use of restorative justice recommended it be available nationally by 2015. Its current use is “far below” that, according to Dr Marder who is an adviser to the Council of Europe on restorative justice matters. He called for increased use of restorative justice among police, in prisons and with minority communities.
Dr Marder suggested all gardaí, not just juvenile liaison officers, could be trained in restorative justice.