Victoria’s Attorney-General Rob Hulls is about to cop another predictable law and order lobby bollocking. This time it is because Mr Hulls is considering extending a system known as restorative justice, which is currently used in the Children’s Court, to adult courts. The Herald Sun sneeringly referred to the proposal this week as a crime without punishment plan. How wrong they are!

Restorative justice is a system where offenders, victims, court staff, lawyers, police and relevant health or community support workers sit down and discuss the consequences of a person’s offending in a relatively informal setting. Restorative justice can be used where the offender admits guilt, accepts responsibility for his or her actions and agrees to participate with the victim in the program.

Victims, according to the experience of the project in the UK and Canada, love it and much prefer it to the traditional justice system.

The traditional criminal justice system as we know is expensive, inefficient and far from user friendly. The chronic inadequacy of legal aid funding, poorly resourced courts and the inherent inequality involved in a state prosecutor with “deep pockets” against, in the main, defendants who are financially challenged, are all hallmarks of the current system which operates in every jurisdiction in Australia.

So Hulls is right to give consideration to moving towards a process that is focused on better outcomes for defendants, victims, and therefore society. Restorative justice is a core feature of any such approach. For crimes of violence and sexual assault cases, restorative justice is more satisfying for victims.

Last year, the UK government published a fourth evaluation of three restorative justice schemes it has had running for a number of years. This evaluation and three that preceded it, published in 2003 and 2007, examined three centres where restorative justice programs are in place for offences as serious as fraud and assault — London, Thames Valley and Northumbria.

These evaluations have concluded that the program is a stunning success. Restorative justice has reduced the frequency of reconviction on average by 27%; by 33% when delivered to prisoners just prior to release; and by 55% when delivered to prisoners serving community sentences. For every £1 spent on delivering the Restorative Justice conferences, up to £9 is saved in lowering the cost of offending.

Importantly, 85% of victims and 80% of offenders were satisfied with their experience of the restorative justice process.

Restorative justice has been utilised in the criminal law in Canada for thirty five years. A 2005, seven-year evaluation of the use of restorative justice in cases of serious criminal offences concluded that it can lead to more satisfactory outcomes than the traditional trial process. The results mirror the UK experience. A Canadian government report released in 2005 found that:

95% of offenders and 78.7% of victims felt that justice had been served in their case. Only 4.9% of offenders and 5.3% of victims felt that the outcome would have been more satisfying had they pursued their case in the traditional criminal justice system… In fact, 87.8% of offenders and 86.3% of victims said that they would choose a restorative justice approach over the traditional criminal justice approach if they were to become involved in criminal proceedings in the future.

Mr Hulls is onto a winner here.

Peter Fray

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