I worked as a front line police officer for four years before moving sideways into the Community Safety department, where I advised businesses on their security and commented on planning applications on behalf of the police to try to ‘design out’ the opportunity for crime from larger developments. When a colleague left the department, I was asked to take on her fledgling post-conviction restorative justice (RJ) project – I was intrigued, so gladly agreed. It took a while to establish the referral process and to gain the confidence of the staff in the other agencies, but the project has been running successfully for over 18 months, during which time I’ve run 33 meetings involving nearly 80 participants.
My work now involves arranging and facilitating the RJ for sentenced offenders in Bristol, mainly those who come under the Impact scheme. Impact involves the police, probation, drug workers and the prison service working together to supervise and support the city’s most prolific acquisitive criminals. Most of those I deal with are burglars or robbers, although there have been a few car criminals. I also work with other one-off cases outside my remit and I’ve dealt with an offender convicted for causing death by dangerous driving.
Many of the offenders I work with are in HMP Bristol, but I also deal with those given non-custodial sentences. I’ve recently expanded the project to include female offenders from Bristol in Eastwood Park prison. For Bristol offenders housed in prison elsewhere, I arrange for temporary transfers to HMP Bristol so the victim is not inconvenienced.
Being given the freedom to expand and amend the Impact project, and the time to deal with it properly, has meant I can provide victims with a single point of contact and support them all the way through the process, including transporting them to and from the conference.
The most serious cases seem to achieve the biggest transformations in the feelings of the victims. My most memorable case was a violent aggravated burglary (a burglary involving a weapon) where the female victim was still scared and angry two years after the offence. Having the chance to tell the offender how he had affected her and her family and seeing how genuinely remorseful he was, made a huge difference to her. Finding out about his family life and sharing thoughts about their respective children created a real connection between them and she started to see him as a flawed human being rather than a monster. This was clear from the letter she wrote to him after the meeting in which she encouraged him to succeed and to be a good father.
Watching the change in both parties’ body language over the course of the meeting is fascinating and informative. At the start, most of the victims are sitting back with their arms and legs crossed, and often, despite encouragement not to, they address the offender through me. As the conversation develops and both parties start to talk to each other instead of me, limbs are uncrossed and people lean forward. I was previously a bit cynical about reading too much into body language but now I’ve seen it in action I think it demonstrates the humanising effect of restorative justice. I often think that some time lapse photography of both parties over the course of a conference would help convince sceptics of the power of the process.
When dealing with prisons elsewhere in the country, I have sometimes been confronted with unnecessary bureaucracy masking a fear of managing risks. Thankfully that’s not the case at HMP Bristol – they’ve been very supportive and open to new ideas. There are very few risks that cannot be managed regarding restorative justice, and people’s fears about the allegedly confrontational nature of the process are seldom based on experience. I have dealt with some horrible crimes involving intimidating offenders and every conference, without exception, has been a positive experience for both sides. Overall participation satisfaction rates currently average at 9.4 out of 10 for offenders and 8.8 for victims. It’s essential we do all we can to mitigate the risks, but we must not let timidity deny victims the chance to participate in such a powerful and positive process.
PC Nick Hughes