A Restorative Justice (RJ) conference is a planned face-to-face meeting between a victim and the offender(s) who have committed a crime against that person. Other people also affected by the offence (e.g. family or community members) may also attend. The conference – run by a trained facilitator – aims to give the victim, offender(s) and others, the chance to discuss the consequences of the offence, and agree on how the offender(s) should repair the harm they have caused (e.g. an apology or financial reparations).
RJ conferencing may be voluntary or court-ordered, and can replace a custodial sentence or follow a period of imprisonment.
RJ conferences are also known as family group or diversionary conferences, and transformative justice.
Victim-offender mediation is similar in content and aim; it involves bringing the victim and offender together, but not necessarily family and community members.
This narrative is primarily based on one systematic review including a meta-analysis of 10 studies. A second review covering 4 studies provided additional evidence in relation to the mechanism and implementation.
Overall, the evidence suggests that RJ conferencing has reduced crime.
The overall evidence is taken from Review 1 (based on 10 studies), which covers results from the USA, UK and Australia. When analysing the overall effect size, the review found that the offenders who participated in RJ conferences were significantly less likely to reoffend over 2 years than those who did not participate. The percentage differences associated with the 10 studies range from 7% to 45% fewer repeat convictions or arrests.
When assessing the effect sizes for different types of crime, the review found that RJ conferencing led to significantly fewer violent crimes. However, for property crimes there was no significant difference in reoffending rates between those who participated in RJ conferences and those who did not.
The review also found that RJ conferencing was more effective when used to supplement – rather than replace – traditional criminal justice procedures such as prison.
There was a significant reduction in reoffending when used in addition to traditional sanctions, but no difference in reoffending when used on its own.
There were a number of non-crime outcomes measured by the review. Victims who had participated in an RJ conference were significantly more likely to feel that they had received a sincere apology from the offender, and significantly less likely to desire revenge against the offender, than those who had not. Seven studies from the UK found that victims were significantly more likely to feel more secure, and were more likely to say that they felt satisfied with the process and that it was fair.
The review was sufficiently systematic that most forms of bias that could influence the study conclusions can be ruled out.
The review had a well-designed search strategy, and paid attention to various possible influences on the effect size by using appropriate statistical tests. However, it did not take into account the potential effects of publication bias.
A possible limitation seen within some of the primary studies within the review was the level of attrition of participants, both offenders and victims.
Both reviews suggest mechanisms through which RJ conferencing may reduce reoffending.
Review 2 suggests that, by making the offender meet the victim face to face, it may reduce the offender’s ability to justify their crimes and deny the impact that the crimes have upon the victim.
RJ conferencing may also offer a remedial opportunity for moral development for those offenders who have had limited exposure to constructive moral experiences.
The review authors suggest that offenders may feel that RJ conferencing is fairer and more collaborative than the usual criminal justice process, which leaves them more satisfied. By perceiving their treatment to be fair, the legitimacy of the process may be enhanced for the offender, potentially encouraging voluntary compliance. RJ conferencing may allow the offender to take responsibility for their actions and express genuine remorse for wrongdoing; a process that allows easier reintegration back into the community. It may also help to reduce the negative stigmatisation often associated with more traditional sanctions, and therefore allows the offender to have better self-perception.
The emphasis of RJ conferencing is also on showing disapproval of offending rather than the offender, with less emphasis put on shaming the offender and more on reintegration.
Review 1 states that there is no single causal theory that fully describes the manner in which RJ conferencing might reduce re-offending, but notes that one theory of ‘collective effervescence’ highlights the intense emotions at RJ conferences which can change behaviour in the aftermath, much like a religious service that reaffirms commitment to obey certain moral imperatives.
Review 1 noted a number of potential moderators, including the use of RJ conferences for juvenile offenders compared to adults. It found that RJ conferencing worked slightly, but not significantly, better for adult offenders than juveniles. As stated in the effect section above, it was also discovered that while statistically significant reductions in reoffending for those who committed violent crime were seen, there was no significant reduction amongst those who had committed property crimes.
Review 1 gave an in-depth account of the steps required when implementing a restorative justice conference, noting the roles that the offender, victim and facilitator would have to fulfil:
Review 2 noted that RJ conferences can last between 30 and 90 minutes, and that the focus of the conference is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to consider an appropriate plan of action to move forward.
These plans generally include one or more of: an apology to the victim, reparation or restitution to the victim or community, work or service to the community, restrictions on conduct, and treatment, for example to help overcome an addiction. The plan may be tailored towards the needs and the age of the person, with juveniles treated accordingly. The RJ conference may be court ordered or recommended instead of court proceedings.
For ethical reasons it is essential that participation in an RJ conference by both offenders and victims is voluntary.
Review 1 presented cost-benefit analysis of different schemes, where cost information was reported in the primary studies.
Overall, it suggested that RJ conferencing was cost-effective. However, there were some differences across locations. RJ conferencing was most cost effective in London, where they saved £14 for every £1 spent. In Thames Valley £2 was saved for every £1 spent, and in Northumbria £1.20 was saved for every £1 spent.
The costs saved through reduced reoffending were based on Home Office figures for the cost of crimes.
The start-up costs of RJ conferencing may vary more than the costs of running the initiative, so the authors state that it is arguably more appropriate to focus on the running costs.
Overall, the evidence suggests that RJ conferencing has reduced crime.
There was shown to be a significant reduction in reoffending amongst offenders who had committed violent crimes, but there was no significant difference amongst those who committed property crimes.
The initiative was found to work best when implemented as a supplement to the traditional criminal justice sanctions rather than as a replacement. RJ conferencing was found to be cost effective in all areas where this information was available, with the largest savings in London where £14 was saved for every £1 spent.
Review 1: Strang, H., Sherman, L.W., Mayo-Wilson, E., Woods, D. and Ariel, B. (2013) 'Restorative Justice Conferencing (RJC) Using Face-to-Face Meetings of Offenders and Victims: Effects on Offender Recidivism and Victim Satisfaction. A Systematic Review', Campbell Systematic Reviews, 2013:12 DOI: 10.4073/csr.2013.12
Review 2: Livingstone, N., Macdonald, G. and Carr, N. (2013) 'Restorative justice conferencing for reducing recidivism in young offenders (aged 7 to 21)', Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2013, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD008898. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008898.pub2
This narrative was prepared by UCL Jill Dando Institute and was co-funded by the College of Policing and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). ESRC Grant title: 'University Consortium for Evidence-Based Crime Reduction'. Grant Ref: ES/L007223/1.
Uploaded on 27/08/15