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More Kumbaya, Fewer Criminals?

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Do criminals just need to talk and get some perspective? Yes, the idea seems fluffy, but it looks like some types of talk actually work. "Restorative justice"--in which convicted criminals actually meet their victims--is rapidly gaining ground in the UK.

In one case recounted by Libby Brooks in the Guardian, the victim of a violent burglary wound up shouting at his attacker, telling him "he had crushed every belief [the victim] had that [he] could handle [himself] and protect [his] family." For the attacker, "this was the moment his perspective shifted irrevocably." Despite a history of criminality, he has not reoffended in the past eight years, and is in fact working as a "restorative conference facilitator."

The evidence isn't merely anecdotal, Brooks adds. The British Ministry of Justice sees an average 27 percent decrease in recidivism among the convicts who go through restorative conferencing. Meanwhile, the victims' incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder drops by 32 percent and the Restorative Justice Consortium estimates an £8 payoff in reduced recidivism for every £1 spent on the program. In other words: the state saves money. So should more justice systems be revamped to include this new approach? There are a few objections, but here's Brooks's attempt to answer them:
Though many lobbyists would argue that it puts victims' experience at the heart of the criminal justice system, where it belongs, that too readily lends itself to reinterpretation as retributive tabloid shorthand ... Of course, the purpose of any criminal justice system is to adjudicate, not ameliorate. Still, as Baroness Stern argued this week in her report on rape prosecution, a focus on conviction should not come at the expense of consideration for victims ...

Critics on the right display an unhelpful tendency to equate the restorative model with cleaning off graffiti instead of serving time. But it wasn't conceived of to divert serious offenders from custody. While many community sentences do now have a restorative flavour ... it's the specific nature of public confrontation and shaming involved in conferencing that has most impact.
Could talking it out--or yelling and shaming, as the case may be--transform justice?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.