Why take part in restorative justice?

As part of their current inquiry, the RJC and Why me? recently gave a joint briefing to members of the Justice Select Committee on restorative justice. It was an interesting and enjoyable session – an opportunity to discuss issues in a less straightened setting than when giving formal evidence. Amid a plethora of thought-provoking questions, one stood out as meriting further discussion.

It was a question about offenders’ motivations for taking part. “Why do they do it?’, I was asked, “don’t they just do it to get off?”. This is a pretty standard question for a radio phone-in, and one that I have had to answer on many previous occasions. But this time it wasn’t trying to paint restorative justice as ‘soft’. It was a genuine attempt to understand why offenders choose to take part. We know it can be very challenging for them. We know that many come out metaphorically bruised. So why do it at all?

It’s worth rehearsing the straightforward arguments. Where restorative justice takes place pre-sentence there is no automatic expectation that participating will have an impact on the offender’s sentence. The guidance is clear – any effect on the sentence is entirely at the discretion of the sentencer in that particular case. When restorative justice takes place alongside a prison sentence it’s not known what impact, if any, participation has on parole decisions but there is certainly no automatic presumption that taking part in restorative justice makes release any more likely.

Having said that, it certainly can’t hurt. Remorse is a mitigating factor in sentencing and what better way to demonstrate remorse than genuinely participating in a restorative process with the victim? And why wouldn’t a parole hearing take into account participation in restorative justice if it shows that the offender is taking responsibility for their actions and given that the evidence says that it reduces reoffending? And might not agreeing to take part in restorative justice as part of a conditional caution tilt the balance away from a decision to prosecute?

But does this matter? I don’t think it does. Some recognition for genuine engagement with a restorative process that can hugely benefit victims seems sensible. What matters, arguably, is that the process is entered into with a willingness to really participate and not just mouth platitudes while waiting for it to be over. That is something that the facilitator should be able to determine as part of the preparation – if the offender isn’t properly engaged then the process shouldn’t go ahead. This was certainly the view of a facilitator present at the session with the Justice Select Committee, who stressed that determining the offender’s level of engagement is a key part of their role.

This is fine as far as it goes until you think about probably the best known restorative justice case of all, that of Peter Woolf and Will Riley. In their famous film, The Woolf Within, Peter says that he largely took part because he wanted to get out of his cell for an hour. Previously a prolific offender, restorative justice changed his life and he hasn’t offended since. Does it matter why he went into the conference in the first place? “Get them in the room,” I’ve been told, “and they won’t stay indifferent for long.” Certainly victims can, in some cases, benefit hugely just by being able to have their say, without any guarantee that the offender is going to engage fully. And if that’s the case, perhaps facilitators sometimes need to take a calculated risk that the offender – while posing no threat to the victim’s wellbeing or likelihood of getting what they need from the process – may engage fully at a later stage.

Offenders take part in restorative justice for many reasons. Many because they want to apologise and to make amends. Some because they don’t have anything else to do. And some, I’m sure, because they hope it’ll ease their passage through the justice system. As long as the victim understands what impact it may have before agreeing to take part, maybe that doesn’t matter?