Description of the condition
A recent survey on the extent of youth crime in England and Wales indicated that 22% of young people aged 10 to 25 years admitted to committing an offence in the past 12 months, with close to half of these offences classified as severe (Roe 2008). According to the United States Department of Justice, while the percentage of juvenile arrests may have decreased slightly from 2007 to 2008, overall rates remain problematic, with 16.2% of violent crime arrests and 26.1% of property crime arrests involving those under the age of 18 (U.S. Department of Justice 2009). It is estimated that approximately half of all youth crime concerns theft and handling of stolen goods (Muncie 2004). A range of factors have been identified that appear to increase the risk that a young person will engage in criminal behaviour, and that shape the frequency, duration and persistence of offending. These include psychosocial factors such as socioeconomic deprivation, family conflict, families with a history of criminal or antisocial behaviour and substance misuse (Farrington 1989; Farrington 1996), and environmental factors (Rutter 2006; Rutter 2007), and genetic and biological factors (Garland 2002; Arsenault 2003). In general, most crime and most serious crime is committed by males, with approximately 80% of young offenders being male (Muncie 2004). However, more attention has been paid to offending among females in recent years (Whyte 2009).
The age of criminal responsibility varies. Some countries set it as low as seven years and others as low as 18 (Siegal 2008): in some jurisdictions young people can be viewed as 'minors' up until age 21. The age of criminal responsibility may also vary with gender, as in Iran where the age of criminal responsibility begins at nine for females, but 15 for males (Palme 1997). There is, therefore, no one definition of 'young offender'.
Recidivism rates amongst young offenders is significant. In New Zealand, 67% of offenders aged from 16 to 19 were reconvicted within two years of their previous offence (Triggs 2005). In England and Wales, the frequency of re-offences for young offenders ranged from 40.2% in 2000 to 37.8% in 2007 (Ministry of Justice 2009). In Northern Ireland, re-offending rates were reported as rising from 39.3% in 2005 to 41.8% in 2006 (Tate 2009). Reported recidivism rates are also likely to be an underestimate of the actual occurrence of the problem, as they only provide information on offences recorded by the judicial system, and do not take into account offences for which offenders have not been identified, or which victims have failed to report. Recidivism rates are also likely to be further constrained by the fact that even when a crime is brought to police attention, there is no guarantee it will be recorded. This decision will depend on three broader contexts: the current political context, the organisational context of policing priorities and the situational context of how the crime was reported (Coleman 1996). A young person who has committed an offence can face a variety of outcomes, from informal warnings, through restorative cautions, to referral for prosecution.
Description of the intervention
Restorative justice has been described as "a process whereby parties with a stake in a specific offence resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future" (Marshall 2003). Stakeholders include the victim, the offender (or perpetrator) and the broader community (Morris 2002). Different names have been given to the process of restorative justice, including Victim-Offender Mediation, Community Reparative Boards, Referral Orders, Family Group Conferencing and Circle Sentencing. Family Group Conferences are distinguished by the involvement of the young person's family or support network in the overall process (Bazemore 2001).
Typically, the process will begin with a conference facilitator contacting both the victim and the offender to explain the process and inviting them to attend, making it clear that their attendance is voluntary. At this time, both the victim and offender are asked to name an individual who will also be invited to attend as their supporter. All willing parties then meet with the facilitator, usually in a neutral location. The conference proceedings begin with the offender being asked to describe the incident, followed by all other participants describing the impact of the incident on their lives. The victim is asked to identify the desired outcomes from the conference, followed by all participants contributing to the process of determining how the offender may best repair the harm caused by their actions. The conference ends with all participants signing an agreement that outlines the expectations and commitments decided upon as a result of this conference (Bazemore 2001).
The focus of the conference is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to consider an appropriate plan of action or "conference plan". 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 will be tailored to the age of the young person.
These restorative conferences may be ordered by the courts (court-ordered) or recommended as an alternative to court proceedings by the police or public prosecution officer (diversionary). At a minimum, the participants in this conference are the young person who committed the offence, the conference coordinator, a police officer (or a representative from the criminal justice system) and an appropriate adult, for example, the young person's parent or guardian. The victim is encouraged to attend but is under no obligation, and in some instances the victim may be represented by another party.
These conferencing models are also used in other areas, such as child maltreatment (Dignan 2001). In these circumstances, families or those with significant relationships with the child in question come together to work collaboratively to resolve issues and develop plans that address the child's safety and well-being (Knoke 2009). This review, however, will focus only on conferencing procedures aimed at young people who have committed a crime.
How the intervention might work
There are a number of theories as to how restorative conferences bring about change. Some have suggested that young people justify their behaviour and participation in a crime internally, using "techniques of neutralization" (Matza 1964), such as denying that any real injury was caused by their actions, for example, viewing theft as 'borrowing', or a gang fight as a 'private dispute'. The process of a restorative conference is thought to make it more difficult to maintain such justifications; face to face contact with the victim and the subsequent discussion, together with increased awareness of the harm their actions caused, challenge such denials and justifications. Bandura conceptualised this process as the Reversal of Moral Disengagement (Bandura 1990). Others have suggested that the process of restorative conferencing provides a remedial opportunity for moral development in young offenders who may hitherto have had limited exposure to morally formative experiences (Barton 2003). The offender's apology and the victim's forgiveness are generally regarded as essential parts of the process of emotional healing and the key to the successful outcomes of satisfaction and reducing recidivism (Retzinger 1996).
Sherman's Defiance Theory suggests that a possible cause of recidivism is the individual's perception that their punishment was 'unfair', leading to defiance of the law. Conversely, if they had perceived their punishment to be fair, it is more likely to have resulted in compliance with the law (Sherman 1993). Tyler's theory of procedural justice, in which a young person who feels they have been treated fairly by the justice proceedings may be less likely to break the law again, further supports this (Tyler 2005). For most individuals, a fair procedure is not just related to how favourable the outcome may be perceived to be, but also to factors such as neutrality, lack of bias, honesty, efforts to be fair, politeness and respect. There is evidence from young people to that effect, which they attribute to being part of a collaborative endeavour, rather than a bystander in normal court proceedings.
One of the core theories of restorative justice, on which the outcomes of this review are primarily based, is the Reintegrative Shaming Theory (Braithwaite 1989; Braithwaite 2001). The stigmatisation of offenders that occurs within conventional justice procedures is thought to be associated with the experience of shame. Braithwaite suggested that this stigmatising shame could be counterproductive, potentially alienating the offender (Braithwaite 1989; Braithwaite 2001). Restorative justice emphasises social processes that involve a disapproval of offending, rather than the offender, as this is thought more likely to have a more positive impact on a young person's cognitive and social development and self-esteem than conventional justice processes. By focusing on the action, rather than the person, restorative justice minimises stigmatisation. Although restorative justice aims to shame offenders by confronting a young person with the impact of his or her actions, the requirement that they make reparation provides the means of forgiveness (Maruna 2007). Shame in restorative justice is therefore 'reintegrative' and is thought to bring about better outcomes, but by definition it hinges on the presence of the victim.
It is hypothesised that reintegration and forgiveness are more likely to occur if the young person not only recognises that they have caused harm as a result of their actions (that is, recognition of wrongdoing), but in addition, are willing to take responsibility for it and make restorative gestures to express their remorse (Young 2001). Expression of remorse is not only a further useful indicator of the young person's recognition of wrongdoing, but is also perhaps one of the more beneficial outcomes from the victim's perspective.
All of the above suggests that the restorative justice process may have a differential impact on a young person's self-concept (that is, the multi-dimensional construct of identity, self-esteem, self-efficacy and personal agency (McAdams 1996; Eccles 2002; Ward 2007)) than traditional criminal justice approaches. If successful, this restorative justice process should allow the young person to reintegrate into the community without the negative stigmatising shame usually associated with retributive justice, thus leading to comparatively better self-perception.
In restorative conferences involving families, all parties are encouraged to accept responsibility for their actions, including the young person's family, who play a part in the creation of and adherence to the conference plan (Walgrave 2003). Previous evaluations of the conferencing model have indicated a 38% decrease in recidivism for young offenders, compared to a 6% increase in recidivism for adults convicted of drink-driving (Sherman 2000).
The theory and practice of restorative justice are not uncontested. Critics argue that what began as an organic, community process has become an increasingly streamlined, police-led process, with the risk that the police will improvise and act as judge and jury, thus eroding the legal rights of the young offender (Young 2001). In fact, a young offender remains entitled to consult a lawyer during this process, but more efforts are being made to have conferences facilitated by non-police bodies and held in more neutral venues (Campbell 2006). Other criticisms of restorative conferencing include: net-widening, in which those who commit very minor offences and who might previously have received a warning are caught up in a more substantial process (O'Mahony 2004); the potential trivialisation of crime, with the result that acts such as male violence towards women become a private matter to be dealt with away from the courts; and uncertainty about what the term 'restorative justice' means or what this process is able to 'restore': a sense of offender responsibility, offender sense of control or a belief that the overall process and outcomes were fair (Morris 2002). In response others have pointed out that restorative procedures take crime more seriously than court proceedings by focusing on the harm caused by the offender’s actions and finding ways they can specifically make amends for their actions (Morris 2002).
Some have expressed doubt as to the potential effectiveness of a brief intervention, given the years of social disadvantage and exclusion that many offenders are likely to have faced, and other factors linked with youth offending and desistance from crime. In particular, the interrelationships between lack of educational, training and employment opportunity and youth crime have been well documented (Burnett 2004; Hayward 2004). Similarly, the links between substance misuse and youth offending have been well documented (Britton 2008). It is argued that addressing such needs where identified is essential to reduce future offending (Burnett 2004). One of the aims of restorative justice interventions is to address the implications of offending for the future. Therefore, addressing such issues may be relevant for the 'successful' outcome of an intervention.
There is also uncertainty about the impact of restorative conferences on the victim, when he or she attends. Some victims report feelings of empowerment and resolution of their grief and distress, leading to emotional healing, and state that the 'humanising' of the offender has, for some, minimised the fear they had as a 'victim'. Others, however, report more negative experiences, for example, when faced with a conference facilitator who was perceived to have an inappropriate style or be insufficiently well prepared; or when the offender had an uncooperative attitude (for example, was aggressive, argumentative or uninformative); or when the victim felt coerced into taking part (Umbreit 1994). It is possible that both that the victim's experience and attitude towards the conference could contribute to the overall experience of the young offender, and that a negative victim outcome could be considered an important adverse effect to take into account in the overall evaluation of the intervention.
There is also uncertainty about some aspects of process. The introduction of court-ordered conferences mean that some offenders agree to participate because they feel that they have no choice, which may affect their motivation and compliance (Campbell 2006). The effectiveness of conferences may be a function of the severity of the young person's initial offence. Some studies suggest that restorative conferences can lead to a large drop in post-intervention rates of serious offences such as youth violence, but that such reductions were not evident for those convicted for less severe offences such as shoplifting or property offending (Sherman 2000).
Why it is important to do this review
Although reduction of recidivism is not a primary aim of restorative justice, it is a key policy concern. Furthermore, while recidivism is one measure of 'effectiveness', it is by no means the only focus, and the emergent evidence suggests that there are other ancillary benefits that are also relevant to policy-makers. Restorative justice techniques are gaining an increasingly higher profile, with conferencing models being implemented in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Europe, and a primary aim to institutionalise these programmes as part of the justice process (Bazemore 2001). Therefore, it is clearly of importance to determine primarily whether this approach does hold any demonstrable benefits specifically for this population in terms of reducing re-offending over the standard judicial proceedings, and to explore whether there are any particular issues regarding implementation of the programmes that play a vital role in the outcome of the procedure. Most previous reviews of restorative justice conferencing have taken a broad focus, for example, including results concerning both adult and juvenile offenders (Miers 2001). This systematic review assesses the evidence of restorative justice conference for young offenders.