Youth crime, restorative justice and its implications for victims

Professor Dr. Brian Williams*
DeMontford University
Leicester, UK


Governments have increasingly experimented with the use of restorative justice (RJ), especially in relation to youth crime. The thinking behind the preference given to crime by young people seems to be that they are less entrenched in their offending behaviour and so more likely to be repentant and change their behaviour than adult offenders - although this does open up the anomaly that victims of very similar offences may be offered the opportunity to participate in restorative interventions if the perpetrator is young and not if they are older. In some countries, such as New Zealand, the success of RJ as a way of dealing with youth crime has led to experiments in using it with adult offenders too.

Restorative justice involves

"an approach to criminal justice that aims to restore victims, offenders and the wider community to the position they were in before the offence was committed by involving them in the decision making process and attempting to reconcile their conflicts through informal discussion." (Pierson and Collins, 2002, p. 409).

The involvement of all three stakeholders - victims, offenders and their community - is an ideal which it is not always possible to fulfil, for a variety of reasons. Informality is also a matter of degree, and some restorative encounters are relatively formal (but less so than a court case). Some important principles of RJ are

  • that it should be voluntary on the part of all involved (although in reality there may not be much choice for the offender)
  • that it should respect the views, feelings and values of participants
  • that it should aim to reintegrate participants
  • that it should be, and feel, safe for participants to take part
  • that it should focus on repairing the harm caused by the offence (see Pranis, 2007).

There are potential benefits for victims of crime in taking part in RJ, but there are also considerable risks. They may gain an opportunity to give the offender/s "a piece of their mind", vent their feelings or find out things they want to know about the offence. They may find that their anger or fear are reduced as a result of an apology or a mediated meeting with offenders. Their faith in the criminal justice system may be restored by a restorative encounter. Financial compensation or indirect reparation may be forthcoming. On the other hand, there is the risk that offenders may refuse to make a genuine apology, that they may merely 'go through the motions' or that unrepentant offenders may even make matters worse for victims. Victims may even fear that a restorative encounter would end in violence or further offending.

In most of its modern forms, RJ involves a neutral facilitator or co-ordinator to prevent such fears from being realised, and their involvement often includes preparatory meetings with the parties before deciding whether or not to bring them together. The most common mechanisms for implementing it are currently

  • victim-offender mediation, including mediated apologies and 'shuttle' mediation where a mediator travels between the two parties taking messages back and forth
  • reparation, whereby the offender takes action to repair the harm done; this can be direct to the victim or indirectly to the community or a good cause nominated by the victim
  • family group conferences, which bring together a facilitator, the victim and her or his supporter/s, the offender and supporter/s and community representatives to negotiate an agreement about how best to take matters forward (often involving a contract signed by the offender)
  • and, in specific cultural contexts, other recent models such as circle sentencing, peace committees and circles of support and accountability (discussed in greater detail in Williams, 2005).

Restorative justice has become increasingly popular in the last twenty years. One reason is that confidence in the established criminal justice systems in a number of countries is at such a low ebb that a 'legitimacy crisis' has developed (Cavadino and Dignan, 2002) and new approaches are in demand. However, RJ has not necessarily displaced the discredited systems: in many cases it has emerged as a supplementary discourse rather than a replacement for the offender-centred, ineffective, punishment based systems which have come to lack public confidence.

This is particularly problematic in countries such as Australia, where one of the impulses towards a replacement discourse was the damage done to Aboriginal communities by colonial approaches to criminal justice, but some authors argue that RJ has failed to make matters better overall for Aboriginal peoples (Daly, 2002; Cunneen, 2003).

Another reason for the growth in RJ is the increasing size and strength of the victims' movement and the greater political prominence of victim issues. Restorative approaches to justice have been advocated as part of a process of empowering victims (and witnesses) of crime, involving them more in criminal justice decision-making (Zehr, 1990; Green, 2007). Sadly, much of the rhetoric about victim empowerment is aspirational, and in practice many RJ projects are initiated with offenders' needs in mind. In a number of countries (such as Russia and the UK), the need to rescue young offenders from corrupt or overly harsh criminal justice systems has motivated RJ advocates, although they have been happy to argue that restorative approaches are in the interests of victims. If improving the lot of young offenders is the main motive for making changes, victims' needs may well not be met. Indeed, there is a real danger that advocates of RJ 'over-sell' its benefits to victims - and that they are then "enticed into restorative justice before they are ready" (Braithwaite, 2002, p. 140). The restorative justice literature contains a large number of studies questioning why such a small proportion of victims agree to take part in RJ, yet the answer is often contained within the same studies. Victims may have good reasons for avoiding such involvement, if for example they feel that they are guinea-pigs in an experiment whose outcome is uncertain, or if projects are designed in ways which fail to take victims' fears about becoming involved sufficiently seriously. Some programmes fail to prioritise victim involvement, for example by arranging meetings at times when victims are unable to attend (but which happen to be convenient for the professionals involved), or failing to give victims sufficient notice (or in some cases forgetting to invite them at all). Proper preparation for all the parties is crucial, but it is not always given sufficient priority, and victims, like anyone else, vote with their feet if they are asked to take part in something they do not understand and cannot see any potential benefit from (see Williams, 2005, pp. 68-71).

In a useful piece of comparative research Miers (2001) asked whether restorative justice in a number of countries was primarily victim-orientated, primarily offender-orientated or mixed. Of the 16 countries studied, he was told that only one (Denmark) fell into the first category. In England and Wales, the delivery of restorative interventions in entrusted to multi-agency Youth Offending Teams. It is not atypical for such teams to have 80 staff dedicated primarily to work with offenders and only one or two specialising in work with victims.

Despite all these reservations, there are grounds for optimism - and for believing that restorative justice may prove beneficial for victims of crime. A number of RJ projects have been remarkably successful (some on a small scale, but some affecting many thousands of victims). The best-known example is the family group conference in New Zealand, where participants' views (including those of victims)were highly favourable whenever they were consulted for evaluation purposes. About 5000 such conferences are held every year, and most result in apologies by young offenders to the victim/s. Many conferences also reach agreement about reparation or compensation or end with offenders agreeing to take part in rehabilitative programmes. Those involving apologies have been found to reduce reoffending, which is clearly in the interests both of the individual victims and of victims in general. Victims can also benefit by receiving timely information about how the case is dealt with, by receiving reparation and by experiencing 'closure' and reductions in levels of fear and anger (which can be debilitating and very upsetting for some victims).

Similarly in Australia, a rigorous research programme has shown that victims are highly satisfied when they have taken part in conferencing. Those who received apologies welcomed this. Most who took part in conferences said they would recommend others in the same position to do so (Strang, 2002).

Similarly positive findings are reported in Austria, where victim-offender mediation is used routinely in cases of violent and property offending by young people. Rates of victim satisfaction are high and reoffending rates have decreased.

Where RJ is delivered sensitively, with interventions individualised to meet participants' needs, it has been successful in meeting victims' needs. It needs to be properly resourced (which it has not always been) and delivered by properly trained staff. The agreements reached with offenders need to be supervised and enforced, as they are in a number of the systems mentioned above. The research suggests that RJ holds considerable promise for dealing better than conventional criminal justice with the wishes and needs of victims of crime. It is not a cure-all, but it has enormous potential.

* Editor's note:
In mid January I received Dr. Williams' article for the IUC Journal and just a few month later we received sad news from Dr. Joe Yates about sudden, tragic death of our long term associate and one of the Course Directors. We decided to publish his last contribution as an unedited text, keeping the original message as it was sent by Professor Williams.


Braithwaite, J. (2002) Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation,
Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cavadino, M. and Dignan, J. (2002) The Penal System: An introduction, 3rd ed., London: Sage

Cunneen, C. (2003) 'Thinking critically about restorative justice' in McLaughlin, E., Fergusson, R.,
Hughes, G. and Westmarland, L. (eds.)
Restorative Justice: Critical issues, London: Sage

Daly, K. (2002) 'Restorative justice: the real story' in McLaughlin, E., Fergusson, R., Hughes, G.
and Westmarland, L. (eds.) Restorative Justice: Critical issues, London: Sage

Green, S. (2007) 'The victims' movement and restorative justice', in Johnstone, G. and Van Ness,
D. W. (eds.) (2007) Handbook of Restorative Justice, Cullompton: Willan

Miers, D. (2001) An International Review of Restorative Justice, Crime Reduction Research Series
Paper 10, London: Home Office

Pierson, J. and Thomas, M. (eds.) (2002) Collins Dictionary of Social Work, 2nd ed.,
Glasgow: Collins

Pranis, K. (2007) 'Restorative values' in Johnstone, G. and Van Ness, D. W. (eds.) (2007) Handbook of Restorative Justice, Cullompton: Willan

Strang, H. (2002) Repair or Revenge? Victims and restorative justice,
Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, B. (2005) Victims of Crime and Community Justice, London: Jessica Kingsley

Zehr, H. (1990) Changing Lenses: A new focus on crime and justice, Scottdale, PA: Herald Press

This paper is an abridged and updated version of chapter 3 of Williams (2005).



Back to Top

Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.
2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice