The ‘ideal restorative justice victim’: how professionals prevent victims from making an informed decision
This post comes from Rebecca Banwell-Moore, a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield whose research covers barriers to victims’ participation in Restorative Justice.
The number of victims that get to take part in a restorative justice (RJ) process in England and Wales are very low and according to the 2015-16 Crime Survey for England and Wales only 4.2% victims of crime recalled being offered RJ. Despite governmental endorsement of RJ over the past two decades, witnessed through the introduction of legislation, policy and funding, only a small percentage of victims actually get the opportunity to participate in RJ.
Research into victims’ experiences of RJ states that victim satisfaction with RJ is high compared to their satisfaction with the criminal justice process and the majority of victims would recommend RJ to other victims regardless of the outcome. Irrespective of whether the victim goes ahead with RJ victims value the offer. Therefore if victim satisfaction levels with RJ are high and victims value the offer and would recommend RJ to other victims why do so few victims get the opportunity to participate? It is this question and the stubbornly low levels of victim participation that have led me to, through my PhD research, explore what affects levels of victim participation in RJ in England and Wales. As part of my field research I have conducted observations and interviews with an array of criminal justice agents, including (n42) Victim Witness Care Officers (VWCOs), across two police force areas to determine what the barriers are to victim participation.
VWCOs are currently the police single point of contact for victims. They liaise between the victim and the criminal justice system (police, courts and the CPS) and keep victims informed and up to date with their case progression and sign-post them to any necessary support services. The 2015 Victims Code of Practice (VCOP) stipulates that VWCOs should offer RJ to victims (where appropriate) when they inform them that the suspect has been charged and that a plea has been entered and again when they update victims of the sentence decision. In addition, the Ministry of Justice RJ Action Plan 2014-18 outlines that RJ should be available to all victims at all stages of the criminal justice system regardless of offence type, whether the offender is a youth or adult, or where in the country the victim lives or the offender is located. VWCOs should, in principle and policy, be offering RJ to all victims. In practice this appears not to be the case.
In my study only a very small number of VWCOs were observed raising the subject of RJ with victims on the phone. There was a ‘wall of silence’ in regard to RJ. VWCOs appeared to construct the ‘ideal RJ victim’ and the ‘ideal RJ offence’. Whilst most of the offers of RJ were made over the phone one police force included a paragraph (which could be edited) on RJ in all victim correspondence detailing how victims could opt-in to the RJ service. VWCOs frequently removed the paragraph where they felt it was inappropriate to be included. The other police force did not include any RJ information in victims’ correspondence. Leaflets were available to send out but were rarely used.
In the main VWCOs waited until the final call that they made to victims to offer RJ, if they offered it all. The final call tended to be when the VWCO was informing the victim of the case outcome. A victim’s journey through the criminal justice system can be long and emotional. Is it, at the point of providing the victim with the case outcome, the right time to mention another justice process that as a victim they are entitled to? Or should RJ be offered at different points throughout their case? Many VWCOs (despite doing so) felt that leaving the RJ offer until the final outcome update may not be the right time as victims may be trying to digest the case outcome information. VWCOs voiced that many victims were not happy with the final outcome and therefore unlikely to be receptive to the offer of RJ. Previous research by Shapland (1985) suggests that victim satisfaction levels reduce as a victims’ case progresses.
When RJ was offered pre-case conclusion (which was a rarity) VWCOs tended to only offer it to victims based on triggers or indicators provided by the victim during the phone call. Some victims indicated that they wished to ask the offender questions or to know why the offender did what he did. Other victims provided the VWCO with triggers such as expressing that they wished the offender would change his life and stop offending or expressed a desire to help the offender to desist. These triggers and indicators initiated an offer of RJ from the VWCOs.
VWCOs used their discretion to decide when and if they made the offer. They made ‘protective’ offers to victims who they deemed appropriate for RJ rather than making ‘systematic and proactive’ offers to all victims. VWCOs expressed that they would not offer RJ to a victim if they felt that it would upset or offend them or if the victim was too upset or too angry. Victims who engaged or were altruistic in their nature were deemed to be more likely to be receptive to the offer of RJ and so too were those victims who had questions that they wanted answering. VWCOs appeared to select an ideal RJ victim based on: whether the victim engaged with them; whether they were upset or angry; and whether or not they expressed pro-social motives or displayed altruistic tendencies:
Some people can be quite engaging to start with and you can sense whether they would be interested in RJ. (VWCO 1)
You always get victims who want to see people change their offending ways and they are the people who would want RJ. Some people have a lot of openness and understanding that we make mistakes … I feel they are the people who we could target for RJ. (VWCO 2)
Despite MoJ guidelines stating that RJ should be available to all victims regardless of offence many VWCOs saw certain offence types as more favourable. Some VWCOs felt that RJ was suitable for low level offences including theft and bullying. DV and sexual offences were considered to be a big no-no. The majority of VWCOs suggested that burglary was the most suitable offence for RJ:
The sort of bread and butter of RJ is burglaries and that sort of thing. (VWCO 3)
I look at the incidents … so burglary I know is going to be an easy one. (VWCO 4)
In the main there was a ‘wall of silence’ with regard to RJ. When VWCOs did offer RJ they selected ideal RJ victims to whom they thought it was appropriate to offer RJ, thereby preventing victims from making an informed decision as to whether or not to participate in RJ. In practice, despite policy and guidance, systematic and proactive RJ offers to all victims did not happen.
Rebecca Banwell-Moore is a PhD candidate at the Law School, University of Sheffield. She is currently in her third year of her PhD and is in the process of writing up her findings.
Why me? has produced a report on the barriers and solutions to Restorative Justice delivery in England and Wales and a checklist for agencies working with victims for improving how victims understand Restorative Justice. Both are available here.