Victims should be given more power in sentencing decisions, says legal expert
(13 September 2013)
Restorative justice should give victims the power to influence prison sentences, according to a Durham University expert.
Dr Thom Brooks, from Durham Law School at Durham University, suggests the current restorative justice process does not go far enough in improving public confidence and saving taxpayers’ money.
The restorative justice process allows victims the chance to tell offenders the real impact of the crime, to get answers to their questions and to receive an apology. It also gives the perpetrators a chance to understand the impact of their actions and to do something to repair the harm they have caused. This is usually done in a restorative conference where the victim and offender meet.
Dr Brooks suggests restorative justice with an added punishment element, whereby victims have some power over the offender’s sentence, including suspended prison sentences, could help to further reduce re-offending rates and improve public confidence at a lower cost to taxpayers, and should be used more widely.
He is presenting his research at an international conference organised by the Howard League for Penal Reform in Oxford on Wednesday, 2nd October 2013.
In the current restorative justice process, 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. If the offender breaks the terms of the contract, the case will then still go to court.
Dr Brooks said: “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 believe this is a mistake. If we permitted 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 forged through restorative justice meetings. Punitive restoration benefits everyone involved and leads to more effective criminal justice at reduced costs.
“At the moment, if an offender breaks the terms of their contract, the case might go 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 might feel they have more power over their offender’s fate. The public will no longer see restorative justice as a light touch, but an attractive approach to combatting crime that can be more effective with a greater punishment element.”
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 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.