As part of the Good Friday Agreement, a ‘wide-ranging’ review of the Northern Ireland justice system was undertaken in 2000. Nearly all of the recommendations of the report were adopted by the state, including those that called for a restorative justice approach to the juvenile justice system.
Most states take a traditional approach to justice, one that puts the offender at the centre of the process and is putative in nature. Restorative justice, in contrast, is much more victim-focused.
The core principles of restorative justice hold that crime violates people and relationships. The process helps identify needs and obligations, encourages dialogue between all parties involved, and provides a means for communities to deal with crime.
In addition to being more consistent with the human rights ideals embedded in Northern Ireland’s governing principles, applying restorative justice practices and keeping youth out of the court and prison systems can simply be practical.
Statistics in Northern Ireland show that young people are proportionally much more likely to be convicted of an offence, but that their likelihood of continuing to engage in criminal behaviour. Thus, some make the argument that it is neither necessary nor productive to put every act of juvenile delinquency and petty crime through the criminal justice system.
Since the Youth Justice Agency was founded in 2003 it has operated on the principles and practices put forward by restorative justice ideas. Several statutory tools were put in place so that placing young people into custody could be a measure of last resort. One of the most effective of these tools is youth conferencing.
A youth conference is a process that involves a trained facilitator, the juvenile offender and a parent/carer. The victim (or their representative) and any support persons whose presence is agreed upon may also take part, but their presence is voluntary.
During a youth conference, offenders are given the opportunity to discuss their actions. If the victim is present, they are allowed to make statements and explain the hurt and damage done to themselves and their community so that they offender may have a deeper understanding of their actions.
The end result of a youth conference is a youth conference plan. This plan documents the course or courses of action the young person must take as a result of their offense. The plan must be agreed to by all parties involved – including the offender – and can include such items as an apology, community service work, or restriction of movement.
Youth conferences can either be voluntary (pre-trial) or court-mandated, after prosecution has taken place. With a few exceptions, all young offenders who go through the court system must be referred to a youth conference.
As of 2008, statistics showed that young offenders who took part in a conference were far less likely to re-offend than were those who were placed into custody. Also, there is a high proportion of young people successfully completing their youth conference plan.
Victims who have taken part in youth conferences have also given favourable reviews to the process. According to the Prison Reform Trust’s 2010 Bromely Brief, victims were present in two thirds of all youth conferences held in 2008 and 2009, with 89% saying they were satisfied with the outcome.
There are other principles of restorative justice at work within the youth justice system as well, such as reparation orders and community responsibility orders. The Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor, featured in the third Youth and Justice series article on Fair Cop, is a restorative justice-based facility. All have had a measure of success both in how they have been received by communities and in how effective they are.
Much work has been put in to forming the youth justice system in Northern Ireland around restorative practices, and statistics show that it may be a better approach than a ‘traditional’ putative system. What do you think? Is restorative justice the right approach? Should similar principles be adopted across the justice system as a whole?
This article concludes Fair Cop’s ‘Youth and Justice’ series, which was written in anticipation of the release of a comprehensive review of Northern Ireland’s Youth Justice System by the Department of Justice. The report is due out this June, so look for more coverage on these issues on Fair Cop in the future.