Punitive restorative justice could alleviate strain on public spending, says legal expert

Punitive restorative justice could alleviate strain on public spending, says legal expert


(22 August 2013)

Restorative justice approaches do not go far enough at improving public confidence and saving taxpayers’ money, according to a Durham University expert.

Dr Thom Brooks, from Durham University’s Law School, suggests restorative justice with a punishment element could help to further reduce re-offending rates and improve public confidence at a lower cost to taxpayers, and should be used more widely.

Dr Brooks advocates “punitive restoration” as a new model where restorative conferences, where victim and offender meet, have wider applicability and greater flexibility in outcomes, including powers to determine suspended prison sentences enforceable if offenders fail to satisfy their contracts in full.

Dr Brooks says: “Public confidence in offender punishment can be improved by providing victims with a greater voice in sentencing decisions.

“Restorative conferences are currently unable to impose the threat of prison but I think this is a mistake. If you could let victims, in line with magistrates, have some power over the offender’s sentence, including suspended prison sentences, restorative conferences could be used more widely and could help to further reduce re-offending.

“This ‘punitive restoration’ approach would also yield further savings to taxpayers in avoiding the need to conduct further meetings or future trials before offenders are punished for failing to abide by the contractual agreements. Punitive restoration benefits everyone involved and leads to more effective criminal justice at reduced costs.”

Restorative conferences have been used as an alternative to criminal trials but are generally restricted to youth offenders and less serious crimes. Victims, offenders and community members engage in a constructive dialogue facilitated by a trained mediator. Offenders must apologise to victims and victims have the opportunity to tell offenders how their crimes have impacted upon them.

A contract is agreed which the offender must fulfil or risk more serious future measures. Contracts often require offenders to participate in community pay-back schemes, complete treatment to address any drug and alcohol abuse and provide compensation to victims.

Evidence suggests current restorative justice approaches already earns higher satisfaction from victims and offenders alike and is more effective at reducing re-offending than alternatives at reduced costs. Since the cost of going to trial is often avoided, substantial savings can be made; one study suggesting a £9 saving for every £1 spent.

Dr Brooks suggests this existing model could be taken further. He said: “At the moment, if an offender breaks the terms of their contract, the case goes to trial and the taxpayer still ends up paying for a court case.  If a ‘punishment’ element could be introduced whereby the offender knows they will go to prison if they breech their contract, we can avoid costs of a trial, and the victims feel they have more power over their offender’s fate.”

Dr Thom Brooks is the author of Punishment. The book’s contribution to criminal justice policy was named one of the top 100 Big Ideas for the Future in British universities by Research Councils UK.