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Why is restorative justice effective? Research from Welsh probation

A restorative meeting

By Peter Salami, a Restorative Justice Coordinator for a Welsh probation team

Over the past 12 months, the Intervention Alliance’s Research Team has completed a piece of academic research into the effectiveness of restorative justice delivered by our probation service in Wales. The Interventions Alliance, part of the employee-owned Seetec Group, focuses on an evidence-led approach to develop thought leadership pieces that inform best practice in the criminal justice system and social care sector.

Restorative justice aims to give victims the chance to confront their perpetrator and explain the impact of the crime they have committed. There has been a range of research undertaken on the effectiveness of restorative justice. In the early 2000s, the University of Sheffield evaluated the Ministry of Justice’s various schemes, and found that restorative justice led to a 14 percent reduction in the rate of reoffending.

The research we conducted is presented in the form of a case study, looking at the effectiveness of restorative justice deployed by the Welsh division of our community rehabilitation company. We interviewed participants and facilitators, assessed the effectiveness of restorative justice for both victims and perpetrators and evaluated the services the division is responsible for delivering.

While there is a wealth of research on restorative justice, there is much less about why it works and how the probation service uses it. Our research set out to answer why this type of intervention is effective.

What makes restorative justice effective?

Our findings show that the key areas to understand the effectiveness of restorative justice are the motivation of participants, the process and the resulting outcomes.

We found that since both victims and perpetrators give their informed consent to participate, they are already sufficiently motivated to engage, making it likely a positive outcome is reached. Perpetrators seem motivated to accept responsibility (which is a prerequisite of participation) and they tend to express remorse. Victims appear motivated to express their feelings to the perpetrator about the harm their crime has caused. They also fulfil their ‘unmet justice needs’ by being able to get answers to their questions. Both party’s motivation for a positive outcome is already high.

The process of restorative justice was another important aspect. Probation-delivered restorative justice in Wales has a thorough process. Extensive preparation is carried out by highly skilled and experienced facilitators, who are employed full-time by the service. Facilitators reserve the right to withdraw participants from the process if they feel they are not suitable, or if there is a risk of re-victimisation. Throughout the preparation process, several stages must take place before the outcome is reached. A trained restorative justice case supervisor also oversees the facilitation of a face-to-face meeting or communication between the victim and perpetrator, to ensure best practice is adhered to and to give oversight to risk management practices.

Outcomes from the restorative justice process tend to be significant for both parties, especially where the offence is of a serious nature. The outcome of the process depends on the type of encounter between the victim and a perpetrator. A more significant effect is felt where both parties can express their views to each other, thereby repairing the harm caused by the offence.

How can we further increase the effectiveness of restorative justice in the future?

Our research concludes with several key recommendations to further increase the effectiveness of restorative justice in future:

  1. Further promoting and providing information about restorative justice services by employing a single point of contact for restorative justice within teams.
  2. Embedding restorative justice more widely via Rehabilitation Activity Requirements (RARs) and by making restorative justice an opt-out rather than an opt-in. The Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 already legislates for restorative justice, so the opportunity afforded to probation from the reunification can be used to adopt this recommendation.
  3. Making restorative justice more of a feature in sentence planning reports. Those who are not sentenced to RARs may still be eligible for an assessment and if it was more of a feature in sentence plans, then responsible officers would be more aware of restorative justice and hopefully make additional referrals to the intervention.
  4. Conducting further research into restorative justice focused on issues such as its longer-term impact, when and how to approach victims and the extent and effectiveness of partnership working between statutory agencies and community-based organisations to promote awareness and uptake.

As the end of the probation transition draws closer, it will be important for the Ministry of Justice to reflect on the effectiveness of restorative justice practices developed by community rehabilitation companies. If the government wants to encourage the development of a more innovative approach to restorative justice, then it must not lose sight of the impact localised approaches and provision have in further strengthening confidence in the criminal justice system.

You can download a copy of the full research report Restorative Justice: Enabling Communication, Repairing Harm here.