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Dr Ian Marder Restorative justice helps everyone - why is it declining in Ireland?

The criminologist calls for investment in a humane approach that helps victims get answers, participate and recover, while supporting people to lead a crime-free life.

TWO WOMEN – ONE  of whom attacked the other, unprovoked – share a hug after a heartfelt apology, a commitment that it won’t happen again, and the revelation that they both spent time in care.

A group of men agree to call time on a long-standing feud after causing each other serious injuries. They agree to several conditions and receive suspended sentences, which they do not breach.

A Garda learns to embrace Traveller culture by volunteering with a youth group after a Traveller family tells him about the harm he caused by participating in racist conversations about them.

A woman meets a family member who was serving a prison sentence for sexually abusing her. The conversation permits her to say what she wants to say and ask questions only he can answer. Elsewhere, a man enters alcohol rehabilitation after damaging cars in the senior citizens’ residential complex where his mother lives. Her neighbours explain he damaged their sense of safety and security. He reassures them about his future behaviour, and they ultimately choose to forgive him.

Restorative justice

These are among our case studies demonstrating the amazing work of Ireland’s restorative justice providers. Restorative justice involves a safe, voluntary, facilitated conversation between a person who caused harm and the direct victim of a crime or other persons, such as family and community members who were also affected.

The conversation can be face-to-face or indirect: a trained, impartial facilitator either prepares the parties to meet or shares information between them.

Gardaí, Probation Officers and professionals from specialist community organisations facilitated the cases described above.

These cases reflect what we know from research. Restorative justice gives victims of crime a chance to express the harm done directly to those responsible, ask questions and move on. This contributes to high victim satisfaction with restorative justice and can aid victims’ recovery following the crime.

For those who commit offences, hearing the harm directly from the person affected helps them turn their lives around more than any punishment, potentially reducing crime. Interestingly, these effects are strongest for those who offend most frequently and seriously.

Restorative justice may seem counterintuitive. To understand how life-changing it can be, listen to the stories of people who participated after manslaughter, rapesexual abuse or burglary. The process is flexible, allowing it to meet the unique needs of the participants in each case through the exchange between them and the outcomes they agree.

Most people don’t know about restorative justice, so for it to occur, a professional usually needs to refer a case to a provider or actively offer restorative justice. Despite exceptionally strong evidence that restorative justice can help everyone, however, it’s still rarely offered in Ireland.

New figures

Today, we publish new figures from research tracking referrals to restorative justice in the last four years. Excluding the Garda Youth Diversion programme, we identified 713 referrals in 2019 and only 413 in 2022. In other words, just a tiny minority of victims could access restorative justice before the pandemic, and even fewer can now.

This is despite the Covid-19 restrictions unwinding in 2022 and the legal requirement that Gardaí inform victims about restorative justice services, where available.

Had cases returned to 2019 levels, we would still be miles away from making the most of restorative justice. In 2009, a National Commission on Restorative Justice estimated that the adult courts alone could refer up to 7,250 cases a year.

Based on take-up rates elsewhere and case numbers here, we estimate that Ireland could see up to 5,600 victim-offender dialogues annually and six times as many practices involving perpetrators and those indirectly affected – if restorative justice were offered consistently, and if there were enough services to deliver these cases.

The period since 2019 has seen multiple governmental commitments to expand restorative justice, including in the Programme for Government, Department of Justice Action Plans, strategies aiming to improve outcomes for victims of crime and the effectiveness of youth justice and, most recently, the Penal Policy Review. However, gaps in services remain in many parts of the county and at some stages of the justice process. A substantial investment in service provision is required.

Expanding restorative justice would be timely, as we face huge backlogs in the courts and dangerous overcrowding in prisons. So many victims would benefit from being offered restorative justice, if this meant that their needs could be met without waiting for court.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of people sent to prison receive short sentences that neither meet the needs of victims nor help people turn their lives around. If restorative justice were offered to people at risk of custody, their victims, families and communities could help decide how to repair the harm done and stop it happening again. This would reflect the reality that prosecution, courts and prisons do little for victims. We would be safer if we helped people solve the problems they face in their lives.

Examples of it working

Some countries do this better. Norway, Finland, Belgium, Austria and New Zealand have nationwide services that take cases at any time in the criminal justice process. This means that any cases better resolved outside of court can go straight to restorative justice for the victim and perpetrator to have a say. Victims can still access restorative justice later instead (i.e. during or after court) if they prefer.

Some countries even require a referral to restorative justice at certain times (although nobody ever has to participate). In New Zealand, this happens in both youth and adult courts.

In Northern Ireland, judges must refer most offences involving children to restorative justice before sentencing. Research found low levels of reoffending among young participants and high levels of victim participation and satisfaction with this approach. Ireland, too, could introduce a law ensuring that people can decide for themselves whether restorative justice is right for them, rather than a gatekeeper making this decision on their behalf.

My colleagues and I are working with several countries developing this now. Italy just passed strong new legislation on restorative justice. The Scottish and Estonian Governments are investing to make services available nationwide. The smart money around Europe is moving firmly in this direction.

Ireland needs a step-change in its approach to restorative justice. A justice system that does right by all those it touches is entirely within our means. A UK charity estimated that it would cost £30.5m to fund an entitlement to restorative justice in England and Wales, which has around twelve times the population of Ireland. The social and economic benefits of investing in restorative justice would be substantial – as is the human cost of continuing with the same failed approaches to crime.

Dr Ian Marder is Assistant Professor in Criminology at Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology. He is an expert in criminal justice reform and seeks to communicate the lessons from this area of research to a wider audience.  

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