As the vicar said to the car thief

Some victims of crime are happy to meet the perpetrators, but does restorative justice really benefit young offenders, asks Joe Plomin, or is it just a soft option?
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The Independent Online

Reverend Akinwale Babatunde was shocked and angry after his car was stolen twice ­ not least because it left him and his family at the mercy of the local bus service.

Reverend Akinwale Babatunde was shocked and angry after his car was stolen twice ­ not least because it left him and his family at the mercy of the local bus service.

Four months on from the first theft, the Southwark vicar was offered an opportunity that he could not turn down. He became one of the first victims of crime to meet the offender ­ in his case, the 14-year-old boy who had stolen his car.

The boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was sentenced to a new scheme under which offenders must apologise to their victim. And they pay back society for the damage that they have caused by repairing cars, cleaning parks, fixing buses, making bicycles or cleaning off graffiti.

In one case, the burglar of an elderly man's house is now working weeding his garden. More often, however, victims feel that is too much contact to bear, and the offender works in a community scheme instead. Last month, two young offenders built bicycles that were then donated to Barnardo's, while others worked cleaning London's buses.

It is all part of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which created youth offending teams in every council in England and Wales to work with young criminals and to prevent re-offending. The move towards restorative justice is still in its infancy, although nearly 10 per cent of all those under 17 who went through the criminal justice system received these orders between July and December, according to the Government's statistics.

Most councils are still in the process of coming to terms with the reforms, which judges only began handing down at the start of last summer. There are exceptions, such as Reverend Babatunde's council, Southwark, where over 100 young offenders have been through the system, and are currently working with over 20 organisations.

According to Aidan Wilcox, a research officer at the Centre for Criminological Research who is evaluating the reforms for the Government, the new scheme is experiencing some teething problems. One particular difficulty is that too few orders involve direct meetings between offender and victim. Officially, of the 3152 participating young offenders, only around one in five had direct contact with the victim. But Mr Wilcox says that the figure is actually more like one in 10.

It is important that as many of these orders involve direct meetings as possible. "Where a victim meets an offender, there's clear evidence they do think it's fairer justice than prison or fines," said Mr Wilcox. Magistrates are required to provide both speedy justice and to consider the victim of the crime. If the first factor is prioritised, thenfew victims will actually meet their offender. And under the Data Protection Act, only a police officer can contact the victim of crime, and a lack of officers attached to the system at present adds another difficulty to the process of setting up direct meetings.

But even if there are problems, Mr Wilcox believes that an important new step in youth justice is being taken, away from Michael Howard's famous statement that "prison works" towards a view that society must try something else. Underlying the move towards restorative justice is the fact that 70 per cent of criminals sent to Feltham young offenders' institution are back within two years of being released.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf concedes that there is a problem with victims being left out of the justice system that needs to be addressed, but says that reparation is a step in the right direction for victims.

A serious concern for most of those working with restorative justice is that the public might regard this is a soft option for criminals. For Roger Graef, criminologist and author of Why Restorative Justice?, that kind of attitude reflects a facet of our society.

"The British love punishment and like punishing children. It's a very blaming culture, and they don't like giving up that sport," he said.

But jail and fines have not worked as a mode of punishment. "In every piece of research, offenders say that it is much more difficult to talk with people than to stay in prison. This stands a much better chance of achieving an outcome which both sides see as fair," Mr Graef said.

The main point for most of the people working in reparation is that this just might work better than prison or fines, the only punishments for young people previously available to judges. One study in Australia included interviews with 200 victims who had spoken to their offenders. Only one of them ­ half a per cent ­ felt that he had been pushed into taking part in the scheme.

In New Zealand, police have to arrange a meeting between offender and victim within two weeks of a crime committed by children, and in Austria a similar scheme has been extended to adult criminals across the nation.

Dr Judy Renshaw, the Youth Justice Board's Senior Policy Advisor on restorative justice, says that it is not clear that Britain would want to go so far. She believes that highly developed support organisations here are a useful guard against victims being involved in schemes that might put them in difficult or worrying situations. And Victim Support's spokesperson Tamara Wilder heartily agrees that offenders should only be made to apologise to or work for a victim where the victim is prepared to cope with that kind of confrontation.

Reverend Babatunde was certainly prepared to meet the young offender who damaged his car. In a meeting ­ to which he had to take his children before school, because he had no car ­ the vicar met the thief and the thief's mother. "I wanted to talk to this guy, because his life is more important than my car. I wanted him to say, 'I have made a mistake', I wanted to say, 'what you have done is negative to your society'. I told him, 'I would love to be a role model and help you'."

The meeting was a huge success. The vicar remembers looking into the boy's eyes and seeing him feel guilt. "He was shocked. He couldn't believe that someone whose car had been stolen had no anger. I think he saw the impact of his actions."

Reverend Babatunde's forgiveness shocked a young boy into shame, but it has been more difficult for other victims going through the same process to be so hopeful.

One man whose car was stolen and who later met the thief remembers, "if I could have got a hold of the criminal right after the theft, I could have wrung his neck. There are a few for whom this will work, but for the majority, it won't do anything. I would have preferred to have the thief financially punished, as well as emotionally."