Does restorative justice work?

Viv Hulland came face to face with a burglar in her own house. She talks about her experience and tells Chris Bond why restorative justice can make a difference.

Viv Hulland from Chapel Allerton, Leeds, who disturbed a burglar and ended up having a conversation with him at her kitchen table.

IT’S a moment we all dread.

You’re woken up in the middle of the night by a strange noise coming from somewhere downstairs. You think it’s just the wind outside and then you hear it again and realise someone is breaking in.

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This is exactly what happened to Viv Hulland and her husband Keith in May 2013.

“It was two o’clock in the morning and we were upstairs in bed and I woke up because I heard noises,” says Viv, who lives in north Leeds. “I thought it was the house creaking and then I heard this crack of wood and I realised someone was trying to break in.”

Her husband called the police and they waited, terrified, upstairs. “I could see the lights come on in the garden so I knew somebody else was there.” After what felt like an eternity, but was actually only a few minutes, they heard the police arriving and ventured downstairs into the kitchen.

“It was dark, of course, and I could hear the police officers outside, but as we got to the door this figure in black leapt out on us.

“We didn’t think that somebody would still be in the house but this figure came out and started walking towards us. He said, ‘I’m not going to hurt you’ but this didn’t fit because he kept walking towards us.’”

Most of us in this situation would have probably started shouting, or panicked and tried to confront the intruder, but Viv did neither of these things.

“I sensed that he was frightened and in that moment I felt really sorry for him. It’s hard to explain because you don’t know how you’re going to react but I just felt he was scared, so I said ‘would you like to sit down?’ and he did.”

When Viv realised he wasn’t going to hurt her she started talking to the intruder, who was still wearing his balaclava. “When he sat down I realised he was just a young lad and I felt really sad because it’s hard enough to get a job when you’ve got qualifications and I thought ‘how’s he ended up in this mess?’”

So what do you ask someone who’s just tried to break into your house? “I asked him why he’d done it and he said someone had put him up to it, and looking at him I thought that made sense. I asked him who’d put him up to it and he said he couldn’t tell me, which I knew he’d say. I just said the first things that came into my head.”

The police then took him away and the 17 year-old burglar was later given a nine month referral order for the offence.

This could have been the end of the matter but Viv, a professional mediator and life coach, wanted to talk to him again. “For those two minutes when I was talking to him I knew he wasn’t out of reach and I thought if there was a chance of connecting with him then it was a chance worth taking.”

After he was sentenced she and Keith were contacted by the young offenders team to see if they were interested in taking part in the restorative justice process and Viv agreed.

The idea of restorative justice – which enables victims of crime to meet their offenders as part of the rehabilitation process - has gained credence in recent years as a way of helping people cope with the trauma.

Victims often want to see offenders punished, but at the same time they don’t want to see them commit another crime, or necessarily even go to jail.

Only this week, a man who left a social worker disabled after attacking him outside a pub in Headingley was spared jail thanks to the victim’s plea for leniency. Leeds Crown Court heard that the victim had met the man who attacked him and forgiven him for the injuries he had caused and that both he and his family didn’t want him to go to prison.

In recent years there has been growing investment in restorative justice, including a £7m government-funded research programme which started back in 2001. The Ministry of Justice said its research around pilot projects found that 85 per cent of victims who went through this process felt it was a worthwhile experience and that it was linked to a 14 per cent reduction in re-offending.

Last November, the Restorative Justice Council joined the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Why Me? and the Chris Donovan Trust to support a campaign to raise awareness of restorative justice, and on the back of this 70 per cent of people said they would consider taking part in a restorative justice programme.

But not everyone is convinced by this approach. Some people believe our justice system has become too “soft” and want to see more punitive measures imposed to act as a deterrent.

Critics question the effectiveness of restorative justice, arguing that some offenders see it as nothing more than a box ticking exercise. You might remember the case a few years back of a teenager who wrote a letter to the occupiers of a West Yorkshire property that he had burgled, in which he criticised them for living in a “high risk” area.

Viv Hulland agrees that the system isn’t perfect, but she believes it can make a real difference to people’s lives. “I don’t think it necessarily works for everybody and I can see how it could be abused. But social workers are really good at knowing the type of people it works for and they could see it would work for the lad who burgled us.”

She remembers the moment when she came face to face with him again. “He had come with his mum and I asked him if he’d ever been really afraid and he said ‘yes’. So I asked if he wanted to tell me about it. He took a deep breath and said he couldn’t do it. The social worker encouraged him to open up and then I said to him ‘I just need to know that you understand what it feels like, because that’s how we felt.’

“I told him that the morning he broke in was the day of my mother’s funeral. His mother started crying and I felt like crying and then he said ‘I’m so sorry.’ I thanked him for saying that and he just said again how sorry he was.

“We’d been asked what we wanted him to do to make it right and he said he would do whatever we wanted so I told him, ‘I just want you to promise that you’ll never do anything like this again’ and he said he would.”

After the meeting she received reports about how he was getting on. “The social workers said until he met us again he hadn’t realised the impact of what he’d done and that it had really made a difference to him.”

Since their meeting she has heard that the teenager is trying to turn his life around. “I was told he’d been talking about going to college and had started doing some voluntary work, and that he’d realised he was actually worth something.”

In her case, Viv feels the restorative justice process has been worth the effort.

“It was good for us because I wanted to follow it through and if it turns out that he has opportunities he wouldn’t have otherwise had, then it’s actually a great burglary to have had.”