School bullies could be forced to apologise to their victims face-to-face in an effort to prevent them becoming the criminals of the future.
A major extension of "restorative justice" schemes, in which offenders witness first-hand the damage and suffering they have caused, was announced yesterday by the Home Secretary David Blunkett. The concept is imported from New Zealand, where feuding Maori clans used it to resolve community disputes.
Largely limited to young offenders, more adult criminals will be now brought into such programmes.
Lawbreakers will be able to avoid being taken to court if they sign up to such schemes and those that have been convicted could have their sentences cut if they join.
Mr Blunkett announced that he wanted to extend the idea to include schools as a way of nipping criminal tendencies in the bud. A Home Office consultation document yesterday said such techniques were "not only useful in supporting educational outcomes and improving behaviour in schools, but also act as an early intervention to prevent crime."
Trials of the scheme designed to tackle bullying and disruptive behaviour in schools in two London boroughs have been judged a success, leading to a drop in the numbers of exclusions of pupils.
The Government proposals argue that "restorative justice" has the potential to deliver "faster, more cost effective justice", as well as saving court time and taxpayers' money. Mr Blunkett will also be hoping that they have an impact on the rising prison population.
A pilot scheme will be set up to test the strategy and researchers will examine its success at cutting reoffending. Ideas being studied include offenders apologising, either personally or in writing, to their victims, paying compensation or doing unpaid work in the community.
Critics have dismissed the idea as a "soft option". But its advocates argue it helps perpetrators face up to their crimes, while their victims are able to achieve a sense of "closure" and move on to rebuild their lives.
Restorative justice may be used as a requirement of the planned conditional caution to be made available to police. It may also be available before sentencing and during prison or probation sentences. Mr Blunkett said yesterday: "It is about more than 'saying sorry' - it provides the victim with an explanation of why the crime was committed.
"This is something a prison sentence on its own can never do and this measure can enable victims to move on and continue with their lives."
A spokesman for the crime reduction charity Nacro said: "Restorative justice can have a profound effect on the attitudes of offenders.
"Those offenders who meet and make active reparation to their victims are under no subsequent illusions about the impact of their crimes and this measure can often go a long way in preventing many from reoffending."
In a separate scheme, the Home Secretary published plans to create a commissioner who will champion victims' rights and introduce a statutory code of practice for criminal justice agencies to ensure victims are not forgotten.
A VICTIM'S STORY
Helene Sentkovsky, below, a single mother from Bracknell, Berkshire, was a victim of car crime 14 times in less than year. After a police chase, three young offenders were caught driving her car. Ms Sentkovsky was asked to meet one of them, aged 15 . "As soon as he looked at me and said how sorry he was for what he had done, I felt 100 times better than I would have believed possible," she said.
AN OFFENDER'S STORY
For Damian Divine, meeting his victim was a turning point on the journey to the straight and narrow. After being convicted of robbing a 15-year-old girl, he met the victim's mother. Divine, 18, from Croydon, south London, said: "It got me thinking, well, I better stop doing this because it's not right. It made the whole situation real."
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