Mark Burns-Williamson: Face-to-face way to empower victims

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Burglaries, anti-social behaviour and low level crime including noise nuisance, affect lives and destroy confidence. They mean people live in fear in their own homes, cause untold damage to victims and can also ruin the lives of those committing these offences.

Victims can feel devastated and left wondering why they were targeted, while the offenders seldom stop to think about the implications of their actions and can and often do go on to reoffend.

This is where restorative justice can come in to present an alternative approach.

Restorative justice involves victims and offenders meeting or communicating in order for the offender to face up to their crime and resolve matters in agreement with the victim. It can be through direct contact or indirect in the form of a letter.

No one is saying it is easy, it takes careful management for both parties and it isn’t always the answer. But what it can do is make the perpetrator face up to his or her crimes and their impact.

For victims it can give them the opportunity to have questions answered, express their feelings directly to the person who has hurt them, to receive an apology, work towards closure and see and feel justice being done.

For offenders it can mean they take responsibility, make amends, have the opportunity to say sorry and reduce the change of future offending.

I am looking to hold an event with partners, the first of its kind in West Yorkshire, to bring together people with experience of developing restorative justice approaches in West Yorkshire and beyond, to learn from each other and build on the work done through my Victims Services preparatory grant, a proportion of which has been invested to support the development of restorative justice approaches in West Yorkshire.

I have always pledged to put the victim first and this event will recognise the importance of that and will involve working across the county with Victim Support, probation services and the five Community Safety Partnerships.

In Leeds, I have agreed funding for a Neighbourhood Resolution Panel Co-ordinator who will develop panels involving residents and the third sector in training front line staff in knowing when restorative justice may be the appropriate path I have also funded the development of Victims Hubs in Leeds that will aim to help victims cope with the immediate impacts of crime and help to minimise any long term harm. I am supporting similar developments elsewhere, as well as the Help for Victims website www.helpforvictims.co.uk.

The success of Restorative Justice in Bradford in the form of Neighbourhood Resolution Panels (NRP) has been recognised nationally, with the Bradford project winning The Howard League for Penal Reform Community Programmes Award in the Restorative Justice category.

Those involved in the Bradford NRP include West Yorkshire Police, Bradford City Council, Probation, social housing groups including Accent Housing and the West Yorkshire Community Rehabilitation Company and, most importantly, 70-plus trained volunteers from various backgrounds.

The project has a staggering 90 per cent victim satisfaction rate. Up to 97 per cent of those who have been through the process have not reoffended or had need for further intervention.

I have also commissioned a Restorative Justice Service Unit in Bradford that will recruit and train volunteers.

In Kirklees we have committed to expand the Neighbourhood Resolution Panel so victims subjected to certain low level crimes have the opportunity to resolve that conflict and prevent issues escalating into more serious behaviour.

In some cases, restorative justice is not the answer, but is it proven to stop reoffending? Yes it is, in many cases.

Is it proven to help victims move on with their lives? Yes it is.

Does it ease pressure on the police and criminal justice system and help victims feel empowered after traumatic experiences? Yes it does.

That has to mean it is something worth investing in and offering as an option. Because the crucial thing to remember is this. It is always the victim’s right to choose what is appropriate for them, and a proven way of helping them to rebuild their lives in a way that is right for them has to be considered as a real option to help them feel safer and prevent re-offending.

Mark Burns-Williamson is the police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire.