There are many areas of life in Northern Ireland where real political and perhaps irreconcilable differences exist, where emotions run high and political fights are inevitable. Restorative justice is not one such issue and should not be allowed to become one. The concept of restorative justice as an approach to handling crime was first introduced into Northern Ireland over twenty years ago by Dr Howard Zehr, of the American Mennonite University. (The Mennonites are an international humanitarian organisation.) It has since been recognised worldwide as a successful approach to the resolution of crime problems. Community-based restorative justice schemes were piloted by republican and loyalist groups in west Belfast at least a decade ago. The concept of restorative justice formally received governmental support in Northern Ireland on the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Review five years ago. So the idea has been around for a bit.
What is restorative justice and why has the issue become a bone of contention? Contrary to what you might have gathered from recent public debates, it has nothing to do with paramilitaries replacing the police in some areas. It has everything to do with courts, police and communities tackling crime in a new way. Our system of criminal justice is based on an adversarial model. The state prosecutes the accused. The accused defends himself. Both ‘sides’ present their evidence and the court, judge or jury decides on the basis of evidence presented whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. One side is necessarily pitted against the other and victims of crime, rather than being at the centre of the action, often feel left out of their own cases and allocated only a peripheral role as the presenter of evidence to seemingly belligerent legal experts. Furthermore, in the current criminal justice system the offender’s focus often is on getting ‘off’ and avoiding all responsibility for his/her actions.
Restorative justice is a different way of thinking about crime and conflict. While it continues to place the court of law in its central position, it challenges us to think about how we restore the balance for victim, community and offender when a crime has been committed. Restorative models attempt to hold the offender accountable in a meaningful way, to take responsibility for their conduct and as far as possible repair the damage done to the victim and to the community. Restorative schemes are often regarded and used as an alternative to the expensive court process when dealing with low-level crime. But the restorative approach if the circumstances are right can and should be used after a finding of guilt, even with serious crimes.
There is no dispute among all the interested parties in Northern Ireland about the worthiness of restorative justice schemes. What is causing nervousness is not the concept but its implementation. And the dispute is about power and control. At present we have two streams of delivery of pilot schemes; one managed by the NIO within its juvenile justice agencies, with involvement and support from police and other statutory bodies. The other provision began in loyalist and republican areas as a creative attempt to stop punishment beatings. Over the years these community based schemes have worked hard to improve quality of work and are evaluated by an independent world expert on restorative justice practice. In the past there were issues about working with the police. There is optimism that in future this will no longer be a problem.
Which brings me to the power point