Proceeding with caution
A couple of weeks ago the Howard League launched a campaign focused on the new criminal courts charge, which is imposed on anyone convicted of an offence regardless of their capacity to pay. Through this campaign they have highlighted examples of cases where offenders have faced steep financial penalties for relatively minor crimes. The media has also recently focused on the case of Louisa Sewell, who was given a £328.75 fine for stealing a packet of Mars Bars.
Whatever the details of that particular offence, and the others that have been highlighted by the Howard League, it is undoubtedly the case that court appearances for low level offences are expensive, frequently offer little to the victim and can lead to punishments that do nothing to prevent reoffending. This works for nobody – not the victim, not the offender and not the courts, which can scarcely afford to manage their current caseload.
One way of removing many low level cases from the courts altogether is to better deploy restorative justice as part of an out of court disposal. The government is currently trialling a new approach to out of court disposals, with restorative justice intended to play a part, but in the meantime current practice is inconsistent. In some areas police forces use restorative justice effectively in response to low level offending, but in other areas practice is poor or restorative justice is rarely used.
This is a missed opportunity. Evidence shows that restorative justice, used as part of an out of court disposal, is both effective and cheaper than other approaches. Surrey’s Youth Restorative Intervention, for example, has been evaluated with very positive results. But this approach should not be confined to young people – restorative justice can be equally effective with adults.
None of this is new. Restorative justice has been used by the police out of court for years, ever since the pioneering work of Sir Charles Pollard in Thames Valley. Nor is it unpopular. Concerns have been raised in the past where poor quality restorative justice had been carried out without the victim’s active involvement. But where it is done well restorative justice can offer a great deal to victims - far more than a court appearance where the victim largely sits on the sidelines, if they can even attend at all.
That, however, is the real challenge. The benefits of restorative justice are well established but ensuring quality in delivery is essential. This is particularly challenging when it is being delivered informally and in the community, where there is inevitably limited oversight or supervision. Moreover, while many police officers undoubtedly do restorative justice very well, are they best placed to act as neutral facilitators? Or are trained and supported members of the community, possibly volunteers, a better way of delivering a high quality service to both victims and offenders?
In the short term, police officers delivering restorative interventions may be the best way to keep people from going to court unnecessarily. In the longer term, new models of delivery may be required. But either way restorative justice should become the default response to low level offending.
Of the £328.75 that Louisa Sewell was ordered to pay to the court just 75p went to the victim in compensation. Surely they would have gained more from a restorative process?