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Restorative justice - giving victims a voice

AS we mark the first anniversary of restorative justice in Dorset, my mind turns to the many victims of crime I met during my long police career - and how they could have benefited from this vital service.

Having served as a police officer for three decades, I saw time and time again the devastating impact that crime has on its victims.

This is particularly true when it comes to offences such as burglary and theft – sometimes misleadingly described as petty crimes. I say misleading, as ‘petty’ is the last word you would use to describe this experience if it happened to you.

Long after the insurance claims have been settled and the policing work has been carried out, the psychological scars remain in place on those who have been affected.

People who have been victims of street robbery can feel frightened and anxious going out to visit friends or just to travel to and from work.

Perhaps worse, those who have been burgled sometimes no longer feel comfortable in their own homes, knowing an intruder has invaded the one place they should always feel safe and secure. Quite simply, crime turns people’s lives upside down.

I have long felt that the current ways of dealing with offenders through the criminal justice process don’t work. Victims are left feeling dissatisfied and unheard, while offenders rarely face the direct consequences of their actions and all too often simply return to criminality as soon as they are released.

For example, those who carry out burglaries and thefts have been known to justify their crimes by saying the stolen items will be replaced through insurance – completely oblivious to the emotional impact their crimes have had.

That is why I am a passionate supporter of restorative justice, and believe this is a vital service that can make a real difference both to victims and to the offenders themselves.

Restorative justice enables victims to meet their offenders face to face, in a safe and structured environment, and tell them exactly how the incident made them feel. It can allow the victim to ask questions and sometimes even get an apology.

This means the victim is given a powerful voice, made to feel they are in control, and get a sense of closure.

The offender, meanwhile, gets to appreciate the severity of what they have done. They can feel shame for their actions and leave the meeting wanting to make amends and put a stop to their criminal behaviour.

Providing a restorative justice service for Dorset was a priority in my Police and Crime Plan, and one year ago, I commissioned Restorative Dorset to carry out this work.

They have been working with prisons across the South West to arrange cases between victims and adult offenders.

The cases they’ve dealt with so far include burglaries, criminal damage, hate crime and violent crime, including armed robbery, GBH and sexual assault. They’ve also dealt with road traffic incidents – one of which had a life changing impact on the victim.

Referrals come from Dorset Police, housing associations, local authority antisocial behaviour teams, but can also come directly from victims and offenders.

Needless to say, these cases are robustly risk assessed and the victim is fully supported throughout the process.

In some cases, they result in correspondence via letter, or through shuttle communication – in which the victim communicates with the offender via a facilitator – rather than a face to face meeting.

Restorative justice isn’t for everyone, and cases need the full agreement of both parties in order to be successful, but the service so far has had excellent feedback.

One client wrote: “This was a very valuable experience to me and I will remember it forever.”

But it is still early days and Restorative Dorset, who have been commissioned to run for the next two years, are focussed on working with agencies to promote the service, increase the number of referrals they deal with and increase their capacity to support sensitive cases including sexual harm and domestic abuse.

 I am confident they will continue to make a big difference to the lives of those who have been affected by crime.

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