A restorative approach to hate crime

Amid the political and economic turmoil that has followed the vote for Brexit, one of the most upsetting developments has been what appears to be a sharp spike in hate crime. The police have seen a noticeable increase in the number of incidents reported to them, while social media has been flooded with examples of abuse targeted at people who are, or who are thought to be, immigrants.

Meanwhile many of my friends and family have witnessed incidents of racist and xenophobic abuse that have been directly linked to the referendum. As an immigrant my wife has not herself been on the receiving end of this, but she has never felt so unwelcome in her adopted country.

It is both shocking and depressing that this type of behaviour has escalated so violently and suddenly, and it should go without saying that all forms of hate crime are wholly unacceptable and beneath contempt. It is to be hoped that once the febrile atmosphere created by the campaign dies down, the number of incidents will decline.

In the meantime, though, everything possible should be done to stop these incidents occurring. And when they do occur, we need to find an appropriate response. This should surely involve restorative justice.

Why? First, restorative justice empowers victims and gives them a voice. It helps to demonstrate to them that the justice system is taking what happened to them seriously (particularly where the offence is dealt with out of court, where it can otherwise seem to the victim that nothing much has been done). Given that hate crimes are known to have a greater impact on victims than other crimes – being more likely, for example, to cause fear, anxiety and depression – giving them an active role in how the offence is dealt with is surely vital.

Second, restorative justice holds offenders to account for what they have done and encourages them to recognise the harm that they have caused. In cases involving hate crime, it can be particularly important for offenders to come face to face with the consequences of their actions and see their victims as individuals. It's far easier (one can only suppose) to shout obscenities at a stranger in the street or post poisonous messages on Twitter than to sit opposite another person and hear from them exactly how much you've hurt them. 

Third, at a time when communities are feeling divided on a national scale, there is a need for anyone who's feeling anxious or distressed about what's going on around them to know that there are rational, effective responses in place. The vast majority of people find hate crime abhorrent, and need to know that it's not being tolerated and that victims are getting the chance to have their say.

The use of restorative justice in cases of hate crime already has support. The government’s hate crime action plan promises to ‘assess scope for alternative disposals, including restorative justice, to offer an alternative response to less serious hate crimes’, while the Hate crime reduction strategy for London supports its use. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party (at the time of writing at least), has said publicly ‘when somebody is convicted of a hate crime … I think there should be restorative justice’.

Moreover research, while limited, also supports its use. Most prominently, the research that underpinned Mark Walters’ excellent book Hate crime and restorative justice: Exploring causes, repairing harms shows that when done well (which is crucial) restorative justice can be an effective response to hate crime. In particular, the research found that it directly improved the emotional wellbeing of the majority of the victims interviewed.

There is a strong case, then, for the use of restorative justice – delivered to a high standard by properly-trained facilitators – in response to hate crime. And now is surely the time to make sure it happens, when hate crime is a growing problem and there is a pressing need to reassure victims that they are a part of the community and reassure communities that there is an effective, safe response to the ugliness springing up in their midst.

Agencies dealing with hate crime, whether as part of an out of court disposal or through the courts, must therefore ensure that restorative justice is at the heart of their response. While no one can be certain what the long term outcomes of the recent referendum will be, we need to start dealing with its immediate fallout and repairing the damage that's already been done.