Some years ago, when I lived in Birmingham, I was burgled in the middle of the day. The thief or thieves must have been watching the house since we only nipped out to the shops for a relatively short time.
It was one of the most stressful things to happen to me and my family.
Although we lived in a relatively high crime area, I thought we would be safe because I had two dogs who barked furiously whenever anyone came to the door.
But it didn’t protect us. We came home to find the back door forced and one of the dogs – part German shepherd – lying stunned on the floor. She had been hit with a piece of wood. We assumed the other dog – a rather giddy Weimaraner – had been chased out of the house by the burglar. It wasn’t until later that we found her whimpering under a bed upstairs.
We looked around to see what had been stolen. Predictably the laptops had gone. But then we noticed something rather strange. The thief had placed all the family photographs face down on the sideboard.
The police officer who came later to dust for finger prints said she had seen this before. “Some of them don’t like to think about the people they are burgling.”
In that comment you have the germ of something that can help bring down crime figures. It’s called restorative justice or RJ.
RJ is about bringing the victims of crime and the perpetrators together, so that the ones who commit the offence can hear first hand from the victim about the impact their offending has had. It’s only possible to do this when both victim and offender want it.
But why should anyone, victim or offender, want it?
The answer is that not everyone does. But sometimes they do. Sometimes victims of crime are left with lots of questions. What made him assault me? Why did he burgle my house? Did he not realise the traumatic effect this would have on me and my children? If only I could look him in the eye and tell him what he did to me.
And sometimes offenders do start to show remorse. The thief who put the photographs of my children face down, might have been one.
Above all, for many victims, it gives them a way of exercising a bit of control again in a situation that often leaves them feeling helpless and powerless. Something has been done against them, yet the criminal justice system rolls on and they seem sidelined.
Sometime after my burglary I met a woman who had asked for restorative justice. She wrote to the youth who had stolen her car and trashed it. She told him about how this affected her. She was a single mother who relied on the car to get her child to school and herself to work every day. His stealing it had suddenly made her daily life many more times more difficult.
The offender wrote from the young offender institution where he was being held to say he was sorry. Finally, they met face to face at a restorative justice conference.
RJ is now available in South Yorkshire for any victims of crime. It’s not an alternative to criminal justice. People who commit offences are dealt with by the courts in the usual way. RJ sits alongside that for those who want it – and it has to be both victim and offender.
It has to be skilfully managed. But the evidence is that it can cut reoffending. And that has to be a good thing for all of us.
* Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner