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There has been considerable interest in Australia since the late 1980’s in the use of restorative justice as an alternative to court proceedings. In particular, conferencing has been identified as a viable tool to reduce the seemingly proliferating level of offending amongst juveniles (Alder & Wundersitz, 1994), and indeed has been implemented in varying forms as a diversion away from the criminal justice system. In this essay, the notion of restorative justice will be explored, with a particular focus on the Australian implementation of conferencing as a means of reducing juvenile recidivism. Although theoretically conferencing may be seen as a viable alternative for adolescents to court proceedings, and indeed some evidence suggests it reduces recidivism, it will ultimately be concluded that the success of restorative justice programs depends on more than just its ability to reduce recidivism, and thus it will not always provide a useful alternative to more traditional criminal justice approaches.
The concept of restorative justice is difficult to define. Broadly, it refers to a process that incorporates the offender, victim, and often other interested parties in acknowledging the harm suffered as a result of criminal behaviour, and working toward a solution that incorporates restitution to the victim, accountability of the offender, and an acknowledgement of the reasons for the delinquency (Maxwell & Morris, 2001). As McGarrell et al. (2000, p. 6) explain, restorative justice ‘is an approach that seeks to build a community of concern around the [offender], the victim, and the family, friends, and supporters of both [offender] and victim, and to employ the moral force of that community to prevent further offending’.
Restorative justice practices take a variety of forms, and can be implemented at all stages of the criminal justice system, whether as a diversion from court, or as a substitution for sentencing (Daly, 2006). The most appropriate process will depend on a variety of factors, including the stage at which it is implemented, the background of the offender, the crime committed, and the willingness of various parties to be involved in the process.
One form of restorative justice, which has been particularly prevalent in responding to the escalation of juvenile delinquency in Australia and overseas, is conferencing (Alder & Wundersitz, 1994). The process involves the offender, victim and other affected parties being brought together with a facilitator to discuss the motivation and consequences of the individual’s delinquency, and working together to develop a resolution which reflects the differing perspectives of all affected parties (McGarrell et al., 2000). This allows the victim and other affected parties to openly discuss the impact of the criminal behaviour with the offender in a neutral environment. The process is generally utilised as a diversion from, or in conjunction with, court proceedings, and is usually only utilised where offenders have admitted guilt (Daly, 2002), as such offenders are more receptive of the process and its outcome.
Other predominant examples of restorative justice within the criminal justice system include victim offender mediation and circle sentencing. Victim offender mediation essentially involves the victim and offender meeting with an independent third party mediator, who facilitates discussion of the crime and the impact it has had (Van Ness, Morris & Maxwell, 2001). Circle sentencing involves the convening of a court in an informal setting, where the offender, victim and community members, as well as police, lawyers and the presiding magistrate, gather to discuss the incident and ultimately arrive at a sentence which reflects the concerns of all parties...