What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice is a form of criminal justice that attempts to repair the damage caused by crime, either materially or symbolically. That’s how the key 1995 government discussion paper that set the scene for recent developments summarizes it.
Restorative justice emerged from Canada in the early 1970s as a victim-offender reconciliation movement. It had strong roots in the Mennonite communities from which Howard Zehr and John Howard Yoder’s seminal book The Politics of Jesus (1972) sprang.
New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to introduce restorative justice principles. In 1989 we incorporated family group conferences into the youth justice system. These bring victims, families and offenders together, so the young person can face up to what they have done, apologize and start to repair the damage by reparation, community work or taking part in programmes.
Five years ago a pilot restorative justice system began operating in four courts. The pilot programmes allow restorative justice conferences to take place before sentencing between victims and offenders and their support people. It applies in cases of moderately severe adult offending, including all property offences and other offences punishable by up to seven years in prison. Domestic violence cases were specifically excluded.
The pilot drew on community resources, one of which was Methodist Mission Northern (MMN). A key element for the Mission’s work was to put the victim of crime at the centre of the process and to fully attend to their rights and needs.
Carole van Weede is with MMN and she says the pilot was very successful. “From my own observation the Department of Justice includes restorative justice meetings for criminals and their victims and associates at most district courts,” Carole says. “We no longer need to support this, as it is now running well in the Courts.”
A two-year follow-up of the pilot found that most victims were positive about the experience. In particular they appreciated the chance to meet the offender, ask them questions, and achieve closure. A small overall decrease in reconvictions of offenders was also evident in the following two years – down four percent on what would otherwise have been expected.
In 2002 restorative justice was formally recognized in law. Following this the Ministry of Justice consulted widely and in 2004 came up with ‘best practice’ principles. They stress the voluntary nature of restorative justice, the paramount concern for physical and emotional safety, and the importance of holding the offender accountable.
New government money totalling $4 million over four years was announced to fund workshops educating providers.
In 2004 the Correction Act allowed restorative justice conferences to be available to offenders already in prison. The Prison Fellowship, through its Sycamore Tree programme, runs such conferences but is stretched for funding.
Now Parliament is reviewing victim’s rights. The review is examining restorative justice programmes in the criminal justice system and their impact on victims.