Does rehabilitation matter?

On Friday, the Labour Campaign for Prison Reform (which doesn’t appear to be in any way formally associated with the party) published an article on the government’s plans for restorative justice. While it is broadly positive, it states that “for restorative justice to be worthwhile, it has to prevent prisoners from reoffending”. Given the renewed focus on rehabilitation in the justice system there is now significant support for this view. But is it right?

The coalition government positioned restorative justice very clearly as a service for victims of crime, with new services funded primarily by the victims’ surcharge and through PCCs as part of their responsibility to help victims. As well as having the advantage of greater political palatability, this was intended, in part, to address previous criticisms of restorative justice as being too offender-focused. Delivered primarily by criminal justice agencies, some felt that restorative justice had become seen as a rehabilitative tool. Victims’ needs were an afterthought, it was suggested, rather than a primary concern.

This characterisation was, in my view, overplayed, but a recalibration was arguably necessary. As a result, victims have at least nominally been placed centre stage in the development of restorative justice services, although there is still a way to go to ensure victims get the aftercare and ongoing support that they need and to ensure that all victims get information about restorative justice (as required by the Victims Code).

Meanwhile, some have suggested that the pendulum has now swung too far the other way – that there is now too overt a focus on meeting the victim’s needs. Certainly, it is important not to lose the balance between victim and offender that makes restorative justice so powerful. And I agree, of course, that no offender should be compelled to take part in restorative justice. Voluntarism is one of the RJC’s principles of restorative practice.

But to argue restorative justice is only “worthwhile” if it prevents reoffending is, in my view, taking it a step too far. Ideally, of course, restorative justice reduces reoffending. We know of countless cases where this has been the outcome. Restorative justice gives offenders a chance to take responsibility for what they have done and to make amends. Many of the offenders I have met are looking for a way to do this, and it can help them to turn their lives around.

But desistance is a complex process. Restorative justice can be an important part of it, and the evidence that it reduces reoffending is more clear-cut than the article suggests - government research shows that restorative justice reduces the frequency of reoffending by 14%. But it needs to be part of a broader process that includes, for example, access to drug treatment, mental health treatment, education and housing. Restorative justice can motivate offenders to access these services but it is not a substitute for them.

Say, then, that an offender takes part in restorative justice, feels genuine remorse, apologises to their victim and leaves the conference determined to change. For whatever reason, however, they can’t get the support that they need and end up committing further offences. This would be a wasted opportunity, obviously, and links must be made between restorative justice services and access to rehabilitation so this does not happen.

If it does, though, but at the same time the victim gets back their peace of mind and is able to put the crime behind them and move on, is this really not “worthwhile”? In my job I often get to meet people who have been left traumatised by crime – unable to sleep, reluctant to leave their house and questioning their culpability in their own victimisation. Restorative justice changes that. It changes their lives. As one victim put it: “I felt such relief – it meant I could finally get to sleep at night.” Whatever happens with the offender, this, for me, is an outcome worth achieving.