Meet your victim – can criminals ever be shocked out of a life of law-breaking?

The first time Will Riley laid eyes on Peter Woolf was when he caught him burgling his home. The next was two months later in a prison room where Woolf was forced to face up to his actions, and the impact they had on Mr Riley.

"I never knew it made people feel that sad, angry, bad, depressed, isolated, guilty, guilty about things I had done," Woolf said later. "I never realised the damage I had done, I never realised the harm I had caused, I never realised how many people I had affected."

Both men were guinea pigs in the great criminal justice experiment of the past decade and are now enthusiastic advocates of "restorative justice", which brings victim and offender together.

There are individual examples of success, but the jury is out on the effectiveness of such encounters more than a decade after they were championed by Jack Straw. Restorative justice still hugs a periphery of the criminal justice system: less than 1 per cent of adult offenders are offered a place on such a scheme.

Three pilot schemes in London, Northumbria and Thames Valley produced mixed results: a Ministry of Justice report concluded that offenders in such programmes committed "statistically significantly fewer offences" over the next two years than those who did not participate. But there was no significant impact on the severity of offences. A handful of sessions between victims and offenders even had to be abandoned as tensions spilled over.

Drawing on programmes at home and abroad, Larry Sherman, of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, concluded that criminals, particularly those convicted of violent offences, were less likely to reoffend if they meet their victim. His research also suggested victims' desire for revenge is reduced, helping their recovery from distress.

The concepts behind restorative justice were developed in the United States and Canada in the 1970s and spread to the United Kingdom the following decade. But Tory home secretaries remained sceptical over its merits and it took the arrival of Mr Straw at the Home Office to put it firmly in the agenda. His successor, David Blunkett, pressed on with work on restorative justice. Charles Clarke also supported the concept, but nowhere did it appear on John Reid's agenda.

The political dangers inherent in the approach were illustrated yesterday as the Government was forced to sound a retreat over its plans to force knife offenders to see their victims in hospital.

Jacqui Smith's proposal – and the suggestion that youngsters at risk of offending could be taken into prisons to see life behind bars – was the closest a Home Secretary has come to advocating bringing offenders and victims together for years. There are suspicions she drew her inspiration from the shock tactics of Americans who fell in love with the "show-'em-what-it's-like approach" to crime at the end of the 1970s. That was largely thanks to a single television documentary programme called Scared Straight!. Aired in 1978, it showed 17 juveniles immersed for just two hours in the raw and terrifying world of cell blocks in a New Jersey state prison.

The programme documented a deterrence effort that the inmates at the prison, many of them lifers, were themselves running to show potentially troubled Jersey kids what they could expect if they landed behind bars. Rape, beatings, gang pressures, the inmates spared the teenagers nothing. The show was a sensation and money poured into similar start-up programmes across the US.

Nearly three decades later, the appeal of the "scared straight" approach remains strong in the US, where half of all serious crimes are committed by youths between 10 and 17 and the rate for juvenile crime continues to rise much faster than for adults. For politicians anxious to show they are taking action – any kind of action – "scared straight" programmes are relatively easy and cheap to set up. The same goes for the allure of restorative justice, which is now on the books of 30 US states in some form or another.

There is little empirical data available from the US experience to show that any of this does much to help.

In Britain, the take-up of restorative justice schemes appears to have foundered on widespread public scepticism. Although such programmes are open to the courts, judges are reluctant to recommend them.

Mr Riley, the burglary victim who chairs Why me? Victims for Restorative Justice, said: "I was able to convey my deepest thoughts and the trauma that was affecting me from not being able to protect my family and home. It was only the day I got home after the meeting with Peter that the feeling had gone away. I was able to restore my sense of freedom and not being a victim."

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