UK riots and restorative justice: A Northern Ireland perspective
Aug 23, 2011
I am employed by the Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland as a youth conference co-ordinator. My job is to organise restorative conferences between young people (10-18) and victims. The conferences are 'ordered' by court or public prosecution (the latter means the young person does not recieve a criminal conviction if they work with the process).
At the conference the victim, young person, family and community meet to discuss what happened and agree an action plan for the young person. The action plan then goes back to the court or prosecution for final agreement and if they agree the young person must carry it out or be returned to court.
I have run several conferences over the 5 years I have done the job for young people involved in what they term 'riotous behaviour', mainly in interface areas of Belfast....obviously a different political situation but [conferencing] could be applied to recent riots.
I convened the conferences with community representatives from both 'sides' of the community and make efforts to find someone who lives in the area of trouble and has been directly affected. Usually the young person has to do something to restore their relationship with the community - this may be work or repaying money for damage caused. This is a pretty standard way of dealing with our riots here by now (youth conferencing has been running since 2002 on this basis) and although obviously it has not solved the problem, relationships on the ground between young people and the communites they inhabit does seem to have improved and despite what the national media reports our riots have settled down a good bit in recent years for a variety of reasons.
What I do not understand is why the knowledge built up over here is not being applied nationally in the UK. There have now been over 10,000 of these conferences held for offences ranging from shoplifting to sexually harmful behaviour. I am aware that we have been visited by various agencies within the UK and reports have been written, etc., etc. (most recently the Prison Reform Trust report: www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/uploads/documents/making).
The problem I think is it is still seen by a general public fuelled by British tabloids as a soft option. It really need not be. What is contained in the Youth Conference plan is determined by those present with the victims views taking priority and we can recommend custody and the Youth Conference plan or up to 240 hours of community service. Also, meeting face to face with someone affected by your harmful behavour is in no way a soft option. I can testify to this on behalf of the many young people who I have supported through this process!!!