`Meet your victim' shock for offenders

Shulie Bannister sits in on a successful attempt at reconciliation
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The Independent Online
EXPERIMENTS in which young offenders are brought face-to-face with their victims in an attempt to make them understand the consequences of their actions have led to a dramatic drop in re-offending.

Figures collated by the Home Office show that just three per cent of those involved have gone on to commit further crimes. It also appears that such "restorative" justice benefits victims as well, with 82 per cent saying that meeting the offender had been valuable. They said it helped them shake off anxiety about becoming a victim again and made them feel they were contributing to the reform of the offender.

Restorative justice involves the offender and victim working with a trained mediator whose role is to guide the participants through the process. The session begins with the offender being asked to explain their actions; what they did and why they did it. The victim is then given the opportunity to talk about the impact of those actions, whether emotional or practical. The usual result is that the offender feels obliged to apologise to the victim.

Home Office-backed experiments run by the Leeds Probation Service show that after one year, 75 per cent of participating offenders had not re- offended, and 68 per cent had not re-offended after two years. The Howard League for Penal Reform estimates that more than half of those convicted usually re-offend after two years. The figure can be as high as 89 per cent for 15- and 16-year-olds.

The aptly-named PC Martin Dove has been a peacemaking mediator since February. Working from Maidenhead police station in Berkshire his job is to bring together young offenders with anyone who has been affected by their actions.

It is almost impossible for any offender not to take responsibility for his or her actions when confronted by the victim, he says. It also allows the victim to discover that the attacker of their person or their property, may not be some hard-bitten and scarred individual but a fresh- faced and frightened lad.

The Independent on Sunday sat in on one of PC Dove's conferences which "Lee" (not his real name), 17, caught after stealing a laptop computer from a car, is attending in lieu of receiving an old-style caution. His offence will be logged only in police files, rather than on an official criminal record.

Lee, however, has buried his head and has broken conditions of his bail. Although PC Dove is frustrated by this, he feels Lee, like most offenders, is overwhelmingly ashamed. Once PC Dove gives him a second chance, Lee turns up to be introduced to Martin Clark, the victim and PC Lewis, the arresting officer.

Lee may have been anxious not to face this session, but the same is not true for Martin Clark. He has heard about victim/offender conciliation, as they call it in the US. He thinks it is a good approach.

Lee arrives. He sits down and stares intently at his trainers. PC Dove kicks off. He introduces everyone and outlines the purpose of this conference. The ball is rolling; would Lee like to talk about what happened "on the night in question"? Lee explains that it was his friend's idea to steal Martin Clark's laptop from his car. It had not occurred to Lee and his friend that the owner would leave his house and give chase. Lee dropped the computer and fled. He was picked up and identified later that night.

Mr Clark is visibly angry. The computer was undamaged, and the six months worth of work contained therein rescued. He and his fiancee had just moved from St Albans because they were burgled. The irony of this is not lost on Lee, who makes a desperate attempt to side-step: "Whoever told you Datchet was a safe area was just trying to sell you a property." PC Dove is having none of it. He firmly points out that Lee is one of the people who is responsible for making it "not a safe area". Lee hangs his head. We witness the aforementioned "overwhelming shame".

Things are going by the book. PC Dove reassures Lee: "We don't think you are a bad person, we just think you did a bad thing." Eventually he faces up, even though he still can't actually look Martin Clark in the eye. "I'm sorry, mate, for what I done that night."

The discussion turns to Lee's working record. He's had a few jobs but they don't last long. He gets angry, they treat him "like shit", so he walks out. He has always been prone to bouts of uncontrollable anger. His whole family is like that; he is one of six children.

Finally PC Lewis has a contribution to make. Lee's dad is a very angry man; he has known him a long time. "It's in the blood, you can't change it." PC Dove feels duty bound to disagree. "Yes you can," he says. Lee responds to PC Dove's conviction: "It's gonna change `cos I'm gonna make it change." A neat enough encapsulation of the nature/nurture debate.

As things progress Martin Clark seems to be increasingly more able to identify with Lee's circumstances. Three years ago he was earning pounds 3.50 an hour as a filing clerk himself . Now he is in a management position with the same company. From his empathetic position he makes an offer. "Come round to my house," he says. "I'll do your CV and take you round the employment agencies."

The reparation agreement is informal, it is "built on trust". It includes an anger management session, run by social services. An apology to Martin Clark's fiancee. And last, but definitely not least, for Lee to take up Martin Clark's extraordinarily generous offer to help him find work. So far PC Dove has had 98 per cent compliance with reparation agreements.

"We started at ten past six and finished at twenty past seven, that's an hour and ten minutes," says PC Dove. He pauses for a moment's reflection. "Not long to turn someone's life around, is it?"