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Restorative justice – a myth?

By John Hargreaves 9 March 2015 23


In Australia we have a complex attitude towards the rehabilitation of offenders in our judicial system. We have many in our society who believe in an eye for an eye and hard-line punishment as a means of preventing recidivism.

Few will come out and support good rehabilitative programs. Rather than believing that some offenders can change their aberrant behaviour, they’d prefer to just lock them up and throw away the key.

Sukumaran and Chan seem to point to the opposite view. They have completed a custodial sentence. If they had been in the Australian judicial system, by now they would – in all probability – be out of jail. It is moot now whether they would have had the change of heart they did should they have been in our prison. But they have had a positive impact on offenders in Kerobokan where the Indonesian system has failed. Would they have had this change in our system? I don’t know.

Our penal system in Canberra is based on the understanding that offenders can change. They can be rehabilitated and can take a meaningful placed in our society when released.

This is of course for those who have not been sentenced to never to be released for heinous crimes such as premeditated murder and child sex offences coupled with violence. They are indeed locked up and the key thrown away.

But in Canberra we do try to restore offenders to the community. Note the word “restore”. I believe that we don’t try hard enough.

There is an idea in corrective services literature called restorative justice. This addresses the rehabilitation of the offender by a number of means. It often merely means confronting the offender with the victim to show the impact of the crime. This is useful in young offenders and can result in a change in behaviour. But the term restorative justice is misused across the country. I’ll try to explain, drawing on my experiences as a corrective services minister and my discussions with experts in the field.

Restoration means restoring something as close as possible to the state it was in before an incident changed things.

In the societal/judicial system, it refers to the restoration of an offender to a member of society who has no desire to repeat offending and who has made reparation for the wrongdoing. This is the obvious bit, where a person does time or pays a fine, changes their attitude and behaviour and is back among the rest of us.

But the Victims of Crime Commissioner is part of the restorative justice system also. That office addresses the damage done to a victim. Again, there are no surprises here in that it is an attempt to restore the victim to the time before the incident. It’s not always successful but in theory, it does address many issues. We always worry about the families of the victims and look for supports to be brought to bear to alleviate their pain and distress. The fundraising for Tara Costigan’s kids is a good example of this.

But there are other victims of an offence which has escaped the minds of policy makers and the wider community, which scream for attention.

The ACT Legislative Assembly drew attention to the plight of the forgotten victims of crime in its report, The forgotten victims of crime – Families of offenders and their silent sentence (2004).

It talks about the families of offenders. Society sometimes and mostly erroneously, attributes guilt to the families of offenders through guilt by association. This is unfair.

Imagine the family of a sex offender, unaware of the offender’s activities. When they find out, and when the media have their field day, the family suffer greatly. Often the family’s finances take a nosedive, the kids are ostracised at school, the wife (and it is usually a wife) can’t face family or friends without intense embarrassment and anxiety. In short the family unit disintegrates. And we do nothing to help them!

Do we bring support to the community from which the offender has been dragged to the courts? No! A street with a supportive dynamic is a rare street indeed. The streets themselves are named in the media, and often neighbours are interviewed with scant regard for the distress they may feel.

The ultimate success of a restorative justice system can be judged by how it helps all the victims of a crime as well as the offender.

So… systems and resources should be brought to bear to address the behaviour of the offender, primary victims should be helped to cope with and get over the incident. Witnesses to a crime, particularly violent ones need support and rarely get it, and the families of offenders are left to fend for themselves and need our support. If this is addressed in this way the community as a whole is restored.

Restorative justice as a system is only successful when a community welcomes an offender back into it and is fully repaired in all its facets.

What’s Your opinion?

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23 Responses to
Restorative justice – a myth?
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tooltime 10:17 pm 15 Mar 15

Apologies for my previous double post,

Acton: The severity of punishment has not, and never will be, a crime deterrent. The biggest crime deterrent factor is the risk of being apprehended. If you can wrap your head around that, you’ll understand a lot more about criminal behaviour, such as the two perps you mentioned in your post. Its a significant change in mindset for most of us law abiding folk – and why we see so many recidivist child sex offenders. Simply put, they get away with it once (in their own mind), a year later there’s another victim, year three there’s a third victim. This goes on for decades. One of the victims eventually,courageously, takes it to court and a litany of abuse is uncovered. Robert Hughes, Rolf Harriss etc….The shameful cover up of this by churches and schools is now under the spotlight with the current ICAC investigation, and some crazy statements are being made such as “It was more frowned upon to supply the boys with alcohol than to investigate allegations of…”

Many white collar crims and fraudsters are simply tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave by their employers, out of fear of public humiliation for the business involved. Again, this frequently goes on for an extended period of time, with the perps getting bolder and bolder until they do something that brings their behaviour to attention…

But RJ – whilst nice in theory, remains just that. A convenient political fence sit.

milkman 5:52 pm 15 Mar 15

So again nothing about the victims of crime?

John Hargreaves 6:21 am 15 Mar 15

John Hargreaves said :

Greetings from New Zealand and a big thanks to my motel WiFi.

There have been some very interesting and researched comments as well as personal perspectives.

In terms of my own experiences, I prefer only to speak in general terms so won’t be going any further on social media.

In terms of RJ, though, a couple of points beg mentioning. RJ is not about diversional conferencing. Often this is done before conviction and is mostly offered after the perpetrator has admitted responsibility and before a court hearing.

But be clear. Police are not the judicial arm. The are the informants in a case before the court. It is the court which dispenses “justice” not the police.

In terms of recidivism, I agree that the current rate is unacceptable and I had hoped for better results. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the system in theory is not working.

However, some of the comments prove a point I was trying to make. There is, in the mind of many in our community, a concentration on the offender and the primary victim. I wanted to draw attention to the many others whose lives have been damaged and say that as a community, we let them down. Where do they go for support?

As an aside, for those who like stats, check this logic. If we don’t try to reduce re idism, and just lock people up, it costs a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to house offenders who are not contributing to the economy and paying tax.

If we succeed with them, they contribute to the revenue base and not the expenditure rate. So, if a guy costs $200,000 a year (notional) and he comes out and earns $60,000 paying $15,000 tax (again notional), you have a $260,000 turnaround with a net cash gain of $15,000.

The economics of this should be self evident.

But, the benefits of a repaired and restored community, in all of is constituent elements, will be intangible but positive.

I reckon we have some in our community who will never respond to a program such as a true RJ, but they are the minority of offenders.

It was the case not long ago, when the sentences of recently imprisoned ACT folks was an average of less than a year. It is not possible to change the behavior of hardened or recidivist offenders in programs less than a year.

In any event, my heart is with the secondary and tertiary victims and we let them Dow.

Kia Ora from the land of the long white cloud.

Sorry about the mistype of the words recidivism (re dism)and down (Dow).

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