England and Wales imprisons more children than almost any other country in Western Europe, with roughly 2500 children in prison at any one time. The case against child imprisonment in all but the most serious cases is lengthy and well-versed. Imprisonment is the least effective of all the sentencing options available to the court, with three quarters of children reconvicted within a year of release (and for the youngest children this is closer to 80%). Child imprisonment is also expensive - very expensive - costing on average 6 times more than a place at Eton, and considerably more than community alternatives. In addition, the experience of imprisonment can be corrosive for children. Self-harm rates are significantly higher inside than out. Retaining contact with friends and family is also difficult, as many children are held far from their homes with a fifth receiving no visits at all. Plus imprisonment is extremely disruptive to schooling, with many school-age children leaving prison finding it extremely difficult to access mainstream education, despite all the evidence suggesting that being in full time education is one of the best ways to help children to stop offending. Finally, we routinely imprison our most vulnerable children - children who have learning disabilities and difficulties, mental health problems, children who have experienced abuse and neglect, many of whom would be better dealt with in the community.
Out of Trouble is a five-year Prison Reform Trust campaign working to reduce child and youth imprisonment in the UK. Whilst much of our work focuses on unnecessary imprisonment, we also champion alternatives to custody which have the potential to offer young people, and the communities they come from, a better deal. This is where restorative justice, a way of resolving conflict and repairing harm by bringing the offender and the victim together through closely managed 'conferences' or meetings, comes in.
The case for restorative justice, or restorative approaches as it is also known, has been building on the ground for some time now, with many schools and residential children's homes around the country using restorative practices to great effect as an alternative to traditional forms of punishment and conflict resolution. As yet, however, this momentum has not been matched within the formal youth justice system. Despite this, policymakers in England and Wales need not look far for evidence that restorative justice can work, as, since 2003, Northern Ireland's youth justice system has placed restorative 'youth conferencing' at its heart.
Introduced as part of an overhaul of the youth justice system, the youth conference order is available both pre-court, as a diversionary order where the young person admits the offence at charge, and post-conviction, as a court-ordered conference. Conferences are organised and facilitated by trained specialists, and involve offenders giving an account of the offence, before victims and others involved, including community representatives, are offered the opportunity to ask questions and explain the impact on them.
Victim participation rates, a key measure of truly restorative encounters, are high at two-thirds of all conferences, and almost 90% of participants express satisfaction with the outcome. The number of children being sentenced to custody has declined, with the youth conference order accounting for almost a quarter of all sentences. And crucially, reoffending rates are lower than for other community sentences, and significantly lower than custody, with just under 38% of young people reoffending within one year, compared to 71% of those released from prison. Contrary to some of its critics, restorative justice isn't a soft option, requiring offenders to come face to face with their victims, and hear, often for the first time, exactly how their actions have caused harm. In addition, it has real potential to act as a robust alternative to custody, with violence against the person offences accounting for a quarter of all conference referrals in Northern Ireland. Perhaps most importantly, it gives both offenders and victims the opportunity to input into an action plan for making amends which the offender must stick to. Plans can include written apologies, specified activities, unpaid work, or compensation.
Despite the evidence that it works in Northern Ireland, restorative justice has yet to receive the attention it merits in England and Wales. With the impending general election, and the attendant, inevitable focus on youth crime, it must only be a matter of time before policymakers wake up to restorative justice's potential to radically alter our response to youth offending.
For more information download our report Making Amends: restorative youth justice in Northern Ireland here: Making amends: Restorative youth justice - Northern Ireland
To get involved in the Out of Trouble campaign visit www.outoftrouble.org.uk
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