Critically discuss the problems and possibilities in making the victim the centre of the criminal justice process
How to effectively address the issue of crime within the framework of a clear criminal justice process has historically given rise to vehement and heated debate. Such debate has occurred in the political realm and also within the agencies charged with carrying out the practical implementation of criminal justice policy. However, in addition to the public sphere, debates regarding effective criminal justice policy have also transcended the academic realm. As such, criminologists have assumed a central role in effectively prescribing theoretical assumptions which direct the nature of practical policy implementation.
Since 1997, the focus of criminal justice has altered significantly. Above all, New Labour assumed office in 1997 on an electoral platform which promised to comprehensively address the pressing issues of social concern in Britain (Newman, 2003). Reform of the criminal justice system acted as a key component in this policy agenda. In many respects, the focus of criminal justice since 1997 has taken place on the basis of the wider social policy agenda. As such, increased cooperation and partnership between various stakeholder agencies has increasingly been viewed as being the most effective method of addresses Britain’s social ills (Newman, 2003). Given this, it is therefore possible to conceptualise the alterations which have taken place in the criminal justice process. Above all, such alterations have centred on the wish to ensure that individuals and communities play an active role in the issues which affect their lives. In terms of criminal justice, this broad policy agenda can be defined on the basis of the term restorative justice. Restorative justice denotes a policy agenda which aims to bring together those affected by crime in a way which allows for effective resolution for all concerned (Johnstone, 2002). Thus, restorative justice procedures have aimed to bring together perpetrators of crime, victims of crime and the wider community in a collaborative effort to address this most pressing of social problems. However, although competing actors have been brought together in the process, a key feature of restorative justice has been the placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process (Johnstone, 2002).
Given the above, the purpose of this work is to critically examine the problems and possibilities of placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process. It will be shown that this new policy agenda has given rise to a number of concerns whilst also receiving considerable praise and acknowledgement. As such, whether or not one considers such developments to be positive largely depends on the view one adopts and the criteria one considers of greater importance. However, at the outset of this work it is important to note the innovative progress which has been made with regards to the criminal justice process. Above all, restorative justice has allowed for a greater understanding of the root causes of crime. Thus, as crime essentially occurs as a result of societal factors, any attempt to address the issue at a societal and community level has considerable potential for success.
As suggested above, the main aim of restorative justice was to fundamentally alter the foundations of the criminal justice process itself. Traditionally, criminal justice has been based on the application of legal provisions in a practical way. As such, the traditional legal recourse to crime personified the criminal justice approach prior to 1997 (Newman, 2003). However, the concept of restorative justice denotes a wish to alter this traditional legal basis in a way which gives individuals and communities a key role in crime related policy processes. In addition, restorative justice is based on the assumption of partnership and interconnection between the victims and perpetrators of crimes (McLaughlin, 2003).
The above definitional outline therefore provides a firm analytical foundation on which to base further discussion. By placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process through the application of restorative justice, the intention is that the true underlying causes of crime itself can be addressed. Above all, this focus on the social foundations of crime acts a key argument in favour of restorative justice and placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process. For decades, sociologists and criminologists have outlined in clear and determined terms the degree to which crime is caused, formed and perpetuated as a direct consequence of societal factors (Davies et al, 2007). However, the acceptance of such theoretical prescriptions in terms of actual policy has been subject to considerable delay. Above all, prior to 1997, criminal justice processes centred on catching criminals and imposing punitive measures against them for the crimes they committed. The increased realisation that crime has a clear social foundation therefore accounts for the use of techniques such as restorative justice. Moreover, the application of restorative justice in relation to the victim of crime now has a clear structural basis.
As suggested above, placing the victim at the centre of the restorative justice agenda involves a full and complete appraisal of their opinions and assumptions regarding the particular crime to which they have been subjected. As such, placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process involves greater exploration of the sentiments and assumptions of the victim themselves. Victims in this sense can mean someone of any age, including children suffering abuse at school (Karp & Breslin, 2001). Accurately assessing the opinions of the victim in this way is therefore pivotal to the idea of placing victims at the of the criminal justice process. Moreover, undertaking such as policy move is suggested to have numerous benefits. Firstly, it has been suggested that effectively understanding the opinions of victims allows for a more effective appraisal of their needs and requirements. Such needs could take a variety of forms. Johnstone (2002) suggests that the needs of victims not only include emotional support, but also practical assistance that could include financial or physical help. Thus, one key benefit from placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process is the ability to accurately assess need and address the victims’ requirements.
Therefore, the above outline highlights how victims are now placed at the centre of the criminal justice process and the benefits which can be derived for the victim themselves. However, the structural processes involved in restorative justice also create the potential for considerable benefits for the victim of crime. The basic structure on which restorative justice techniques have been based is mediation. Mediation can take place directly between the victim and the perpetrator, or on an indirect basis of correspondence (Home Office, 2010). In instances where mediation between the victim and perpetrator is not desirable, then it is possible for family members and friends of the two parties to meet to discuss the problems they are having (Home Office, 2010). The use of mediation tools has a number of benefits for both parties, however, in relation to the victim; mediation often provides an explanation of the crime they would not normally get from traditional criminal justice methods. As such, being given an explanation by the perpetrator, may for some victims offer greater redress and resolution than that possible in traditional legal methods (Strang, 2002). Naturally, the degree to which such benefits could be derived is dependent on the nature and severity of the crime in question. However, it remains the case that numerous potential benefits are possible.
The above discussion therefore highlights the degree to which restorative justice techniques have considerable potential benefits for the victim. However, it has been suggested that such processes have numerous other benefits in relation to the wider criminal justice process and anti-crime measures. In particular, allowing for the victim to play central role in the criminal justice process increases the possibility that victims of crime will have greater confidence in the criminal justice process as a whole (Strang, 2002). Indeed, a charge often levelled at traditional criminal justice methods is that they often alienate the victim and fail to fully account for their wishes, sentiments and opinions (Newman, 2003). Now as suggested above, restorative justice techniques directly serve to counter such problems, however, it is vital to note the degree to which wider benefits can be derived.
Above all, it is once again necessary to return to the societal foundation of crime. The prevailing sentiment in criminological discourse is that the community is vital in order to effectively combat crime (Davies et al, 2007). Members of the community are often integral to criminal investigations, either as victims or witnesses to a criminal act. Therefore, given that crime as a clear social basis, then the response to crime needs to be based on this social foundation. Therefore, it is argued that placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process will increase the potential for communities to become actively involved in crime prevention processes and initiatives (Home Office, 2010). Indeed, a consistent feature of New Labour social policy was the willingness to view communities as active stakeholders in social policy in general (Newman, 2003). Thus, restorative justice not only meets the requirements of the present policy agenda, it also plays a key role in addressing the underlying issues of crime itself.
Therefore, it is possible to see the degree to which processes of restorative justice attempt to address the issue of crime on a number of levels. Given that this work aims to address the wider possibilities of the victim centred approach, it is worth noting that potential benefits are possible for the community as a whole. Naturally, ensuring that restorative justice programmes bring about more effective criminal justice procedures is a key benefit for communities. However, the continuing focus on the local community realm has meant that perpetrators of crime are increasingly punished by being ordered to work on community projects and other schemes beneficial for the community as a whole (McLaughlin, 2003). Therefore, members of the community can directly see the ways in which perpetrators are being punished for their crimes in a way which is beneficial for the community in general. With regards to the actual perpetrator, restorative justice allows for the repercussions of crime to be fully appreciated (Strang, 2002). As such, those who carry out criminal behaviour can directly see the impact it has on other members of their community. Furthermore, in relation to wider criminal justice, gaining the opinions and sentiments of perpetrators is vital for understanding the underlying causes of crime. Davies et al (2007) suggest that crime invariably has a firm socio-economic foundation, thus restorative justice processes such as mediation have considerable potential, not only for highlighting the causes of crime itself, but also offering effective processes of redress.
Finally, it has been suggested that using restorative justice processes allows for a better use of available criminal justice resources. In particular, restorative justice allows for a degree of crime resolution within the community setting. Thus, in some cases it may be possible to avoid the costly processes which can result from using traditional legal techniques (Newman, 2003). Moreover, if processes aimed at placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process are effective in terms of crime prevention, then there are obvious resource based benefits for the criminal justice system as a whole. Indeed, given the present public deficit problems, such benefits could be particularly important.
As such, the discussion and examinations undertaken above have aimed to highlight the various possibilities which can be attained from placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process though the application of restorative justice. However, it is also important to highlight the fact that a number of problems have been suggested to have arisen from this approach to criminal justice.
The first issue of concern which arises in relation to restorative justice is its applicability. Naturally, restorative justice techniques have been used in a great number of instances; however, in many cases such methods are undesirable or even impossible. Above all, restorative justice is essentially reliant on the participation of both the victim and the perpetrator. There is no obligation either party to participate in the mediation processes and thus the entire system itself is based on voluntary participation (Johnstone, 2002). The potential problems this could pose with regards to effective application are quite evident. Furthermore, it has been suggested that restorative justice techniques are only applicable in a limited number of crime related circumstances. In particular, Johnstone (2002) suggests that in the serious criminal cases there is a significantly reduced potential for restorative justice techniques to succeed, especially when serious physical harm has become the victim.
Furthermore, the societal foundation of restorative justice creates a number of problems. As suggested above, placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process is essentially based on the sociological understanding that crime as a clear foundation in socio-economic conditions. However, if the criminal justice process is to include a component which is ultimately reliant on community participation, the nature of modern communities in Britain could pose a serious problem. Above all, a plethora of social commentators have highlighted the degree to which coherence and homogeneity in communities has systematically reduced over recent decades (Davies et al, 2002). Moreover, present trends indicate that this process is only likely to continue in the years to come. Therefore, fragmentation and division personifies many of the community settings in modern Britain, thus creating considerable problems for a criminal justice approach which deems community involvement to be essential.
Furthermore, Davies et al (2002) have suggested that the multicultural nature of modern British society poses a variety of issues for the restorative justice approach. The approach of successive British governments in relation to multiculturalism has tended to celebrate difference and diversity. Although this policy was well meaning, the result has been to divide communities on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion (Davies et al, 2002). The lack of a clear cultural foundation therefore represents a significant problem for the restorative justice approach. Above all, restorative justice is reliant on the community as a whole aiming to address collective concerns relating to crime. However, if these concerns differ from one cultural community to another, then the potential for active collective involvement is obviously reduced as a result.
Finally, it has also been suggested that placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process could potentially result in resources being diverted away from traditional criminal justice processes (Newman, 2003). Given that restorative justice is unable to address many instances of crime for the reasons outlined above, then this poses further potential limitations on the applicability and feasibility of the overall approach.
In conclusion, the various assessments and examinations undertaken above have highlighted the positive and negative elements which arise when the theoretical concept of restorative justice is applied in practice. Above all, it is certainly possible to see the degree to which placing the victim at the centre of the criminal justice process does create a number of potential problems. However, in-line with the opening sentiments of this work, it remains the case that restorative justice techniques represent an innovative and effective way of addressing the complex issue of crime. Ultimately, it is now accepted that crime has a firm social foundation. Therefore, the application of an approach which aims to address crime at the base societal level creates enormous potential for success, not only for criminal justice, but for social cohesion itself.
Davies, P; Francis, P & Greer, C (2007) Victims, Crime and Society. London: SAGE.
Home Office (2010) ‘Restorative Justice’, Home Office [online], date accessed 22/05/10, available at; http://www.civilrenewal.communities.gov.uk/crime-victims/victims/restorative-justice/.
Johnstone, G (2002) Restorative Justice: ideas, values, debates. London: Willan.
Karp, D & Breslin, B (2001) ‘Restorative Justice in School Communities’, Youth and Society, 33 (2). Pp. 249-272.
McLaughlin, E (2003) Restorative Justice: critical issues. London: SAGE.
Newman, T (2003) Crime and Criminal Justice Policy. London: Pearson Education.
Strang, H (2002) Repair or Revenge: victims and restorative justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.