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The Somerset Story - Restorative Justice

September 18, 2012 6:19 PM
By Cllr Jill Shortland, Chair of the LGA Liberal Democrat Group in Fighting Crime - Locally by the Lib Dem LGA group
Cllr Jill Shortland, OBE

Cllr Jill Shortland, OBE

Community Restorative Practice began in Somerset in 2003 when I launched a campaign for Community Justice. I described the need as "moving back to the days when volunteers sat in Justice over their peers, now called Magistrates but lost is the local community element of the work that Magistrates used to be responsible for."

This gave rise to very many letters to the papers and I spearheaded the first Community Justice System that brought local Justice Panels into place to deal with crime in communities. Volunteers were trained, a co-ordinator appointed and the Chard Community Justice Panel was launched and in February 2005 the panel sat for the first time and heard their first case.

Since then the panel has evolved and now is the Somerset Community Justice Panel (CJP) and a registered Charity.

When the first successes of the CJP became apparent there was some disquiet amongst members of the Judicial System who saw the role of the CJP as a threat to their domination of the norm. As a result of sustained persuasion, these organisations soon became aware that the CJP and the Restorative Justice (RJ) administered by them was not a threat but something that could enhance and bridge the gap between communities and the Judicial System.

Presentations to and discussions with Lord Chief Justices and The Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales, Lord Goldring, have continued to promote the advantages of Restorative Justice, not only at the pre-court stage but also at the pre-sentence and post sentence stage.

These two latter stages may require a degree of legislation -so to help lobby for this, I have tabled amendments to his autumn's Liberal Democrat Conference motion on Rehabilitation (2012).

There is a drive nationally to have Community Justice Panels or Neighbourhood Justice Panels across England and Wales. The South Somerset model is held as national best practice and is used in the Governments Green paper 'Breaking the Cycle'.

The main users of the Community Justice Panels are the partner agencies and our communities themselves, as without their support and involvement it would not succeed. It is important that the Restorative Justice and Practices delivered by these Community Justice Panels is of a robust nature.

This is achieved by training delivered to the volunteers by 2 qualified trainers accredited by the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP). Volunteers receive an intensive 3-day course followed by a 1 day advanced practice day where volunteers are also given training in procedures and child protection issues. The services of these trainers can also be utilised to supply training to outside organisations thus generating income for the panel.

According to recent research by the LGA the cost of different crimes and those typical of cases dealt with by CJP are as follows:

  • Common Assault £648
  • Theft £720
  • Criminal Damage £612

The Somerset Community Justice Panel could deal with these types of cases at an average cost of just £163.50 per case.

Since the Community Justice Panels inception in 2005, it has grown from strength to strength, winning several awards including in 2010 the Queens Award for Voluntary Service.

It has been recognised as producing savings of up to 75% to our partner agencies.

Police and Housing Officers actively promote the use of Restorative Justice used by the Community Justice Panel and find that the savings in time and the outcomes enhance the communities understanding and satisfaction of the service they provide.

Victim satisfaction levels are extremely high, between 90 and 95%.

The Community Justice Panel process provides an opportunity to interact with the individual responsible for the harm leading to the Panel.

This interaction during the panel is described as being an important aspect of the process and one which victims see as being beneficial.

Significantly the opportunities afforded to interact with the offender and specifically, the opportunity provided by the Community Justice Panel to ask the offender questions is seen by victims as very beneficial.

Additionally, the opportunity for victims to receive some explanation regarding the offence or their misconceptions over being specifically targeted is identified as an important aspect of the process.

Reoffending rates continue to be low and are currently at 3%. The latest Ministry of Justice figures show some prisons have reoffending rates that top 70%

The Prison Reform Trust survey after the riots demonstrated that:

  • An overwhelming majority of the public (94%) want people who have committed offences such as theft or vandalism to be required to do unpaid work in the community as part of their sentence to pay back for what they have done
  • Nearly nine out of 10 people (88%) agree that victims of theft and vandalism should be given the opportunity to inform offenders of the harm and distress they have caused
  • Almost three quarters (71%) believe victims should have a say in how the offender can best make amends for the harm they have caused
  • There was widespread support for 'making amends to victims' (79%); 'unpaid community work' (76%); and less than two-thirds (65%) consider that a prison sentence would be effective in preventing crime and disorder. A large majority were in favour of victims having the opportunity to inform offenders of the distress and harm they have caused -a key element of the restorative justice approach. Nearly nine out of 10 people were in favour of the measure and just under two thirds strongly agreed.

There was considerable unanimity in support across gender, age and social status. Among age groups, agreement ranged within four percentage points, from 86% of 2534 years olds to 90% of those aged 35-44. The range of difference in agreement with the proposal among social grades was one percentage point. Very few respondents disagreed that victims should have the opportunity to inform offenders of the harm done, with only 3% expressing strong disagreement.

This demonstrates that there should be public support for moving further into creating legislation to offer Community Justice Panels to inform the Courts pre-sentence and post-sentence depending on the severity of the offence.

In Canada where Community Justice was introduced to their Criminal Justice System in 1996 they have reduced custodial sentences dramatically. One could only envisage the huge cost saving to the public purse and reduction in reoffending in the process although the report that was issued 10 years on highlighted that this saving had not been measured! Even some very difficult hate crime assault cases have resulted in better outcomes for both victims and communities and some would say better outcomes for the offender!

It is now almost 10 years since the concept was first introduced in Chard, in South Somerset. The actual delivery may be very slightly different from that which was envisaged but the opportunity to draw communities into the justice system was never greater. The Canadian experience is clear that involving local communities in every part of Justice is vital for reducing reoffending, supporting victims and restoring communities. Local government sits at the heart of our communities, and more councils would do well to follow the example of Somerset and as Lib Dems also did in Sheffield. I will keep campaigning for both councils and the Ministry of Justice to see the benefit in investing in Community Justice schemes.

Notes:

Community Justice Panel (CJP) in South Somerset brings together those harmed by acts of crime and anti-social behaviour and those who cause that harm. It utilises Restorative Justice and Practices in a scripted model to work with Victims and Offenders to repair the harm caused and give closure to all parties involved. In doing so it develops communities and compliments the work achieved by the partner agencies, i.e. police, councils and social housing providers. It is the intention of the CJP through the assistance of our partner agencies to have Restorative Justice and practices available and offered to all victims of crime and those harmed by crime and anti-social behaviour.