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The best deterrent of all: facing up to your victims

After knocking back a bottle of Martini, Wayne and Robin (not their real names) went out on a spree, breaking into two cars.

One of the cars belonged to a Mr Judge and the items Robin and Wayne stole had been presents from his wife, just months before she died.

In an experiment which has proved to be remarkably successful, the teenagers were brought face-to-face with Mr Judge. Trembling with emotion, he yelled at them: "On our final anniversary she gave me some presents for my car. I treasured the travel rug, sunglasses, camera and book that she gave me. And the morning after your stupid, ignorant behaviour I found those presents thrown into the hedge like rubbish." The pair, who had already been cautioned by the police, ended the meeting with their victim by apologising and paying pounds 100 compensation.

Wayne and Robin were just two of nearly 400 young offenders who have taken part in a pilot scheme where victims and offenders are brought together. The scheme has produced startling figures which suggest that young people who take part are much less likely to commit another crime.

In fact, the Restorative Justice scheme run by Thames Valley Police in Buckinghamshire claims that recidivism was reduced to an eighth of its previous level - down from around 30 per cent to 4 per cent.

Social service leaders, probation officers and penal reformers last night called for such schemes to be more widely implemented. "We would like to see the restorative justice approach extended throughout the country and the criminal justice process," said Paul Cavadino, principal officer of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

The results reflect findings around the world where similar schemes have also had remarkable success. Fewer young people committing serial crimes are being locked up and victims report feeling their views have been taken into account as well. It could mean an end to celebrated cases such as the serial offender known as Ratboy - Anthony Kennedy, 17, from Newcastle, who was jailed earlier this year after a six- year criminal career.

A 1996 study in Canada found an 80 per cent reduction in further criminal behaviour by those attending a similar scheme. In New Zealand, after a law was brought in in 1989 which made young offenders and their families meet their victims, court cases involving young people dropped from between 10,000 to 13,000 cases a year to 2,587 the year after. Entry to correctional institutions also dropped by 50 per cent.

The largest study of more than 3,000 young offenders in four American cities in 1994 found that reoffending dropped from 27 to 18 per cent and "considerably fewer and less serious crimes were committed".

Thames Valley Police has conducted 367 conferences involving young offenders aged between 10 and 17 since the scheme was set up two years ago. Only youngsters facing cautions for offences can take part and they are accompanied by their parents.

Victims have included shop managers, motorists and a woman who was assaulted in the street. They must agree to take part in the conferences, which last up to 40 minutes. They can take a friend for moral support.

The Chief Constable of Thames Valley, Charles Pollard, said 60 officers have been trained to run the scheme. "I see this as a permanent thing, without a doubt. I personally would like to see it replicated. We expect the results to show an even greater reduction in reoffending in about two to three years."

Constable Bob Gregory, who is helping to co-ordinate the face-to-face sessions, said: "I was Mr Sceptical. I thought it would never work in a month of Sundays. I was won over by observing them. It is not a soft option. We think going to court is hard, but court is only measuring blame and apportioning punishment. This is punishing. Young offenders have to listen to the effect they have had on the victim and that's hard, that's very, very difficult."

Professor Tim Newburn, head of crime justice and youth studies at the Policy Studies Institute, said: "This general approach has a lot of potential and it's certainly important for agencies to explore as it remains relatively untested."

He called for education and health services to also get involved in the treatment of young offenders: "Their offending is not usually the only problem they have."

A handful of schemes are run across the country by a mixture of social services, voluntary agencies teams and the police. Andy James, who runs a Barnardo's project in Neath and Port Talbot area, said 80 per cent of the 100 children they saw a year did not re offend. "And the victim also gets a chance to confront their offender and come to terms with what has happened to them."

The Association of Directors of Social Services also called for more work to be done on the scheme.

Harry Fletcher, assistant secretary general of the National Association of Probation Officers said: "There is now clear evidence that direct mediation is helpful - it is therapeutic for the victim and has a positive impact on reoffending."