Restorative justice – voices worth hearing

Restorative justice – voices worth hearing image

With more than 16 years in probation under her belt Susy Barnes might be forgiven for some indecision when asked about the highlight of her career, yet her answer is clear and immediate.

“That’s easy. It’s the work I’ve been doing as Restorative Justice Coordinator for Salford and Manchester over the last three years at CGM CRC”

For the uninitiated Restorative Justice (RJ) focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. Susy’s own journey into Restorative Justice came courtesy of the BBC.

“The first time I heard about it was on BBC Radio 4 about 5 years ago. The programme was on in the background but it stopped me in my tracks. Eventually I just sat down and started to listen to this story about how a pensioner couple had been burgled by a young offender.

“The burglary had affected them quite badly, leaving them fearful of staying in, fearful of going out and generally anxious. They felt they were targeted and as a result they weren’t sleeping well or eating properly.

“Only during the RJ conference did they learn that far from being targeted their home was only one of half a dozen properties the offender had tried that morning and had simply been the one most easy to access.

“The offender described his life in care, the abuse he’d suffered and how he’d drifted into dink and drugs and eventually into crime. Yet when the conference went ahead he was deeply moved by the fact that the people whom he had harmed were among the few who’d ever really listened to him, had ever really taken an interest in his life.

“The couple befriended him, helping him to stop offending and soon he was speaking to other young offenders to try to convince them to change their ways. I found the whole story incredibly moving and I realised then and there that this was something I wanted to be involved in, something I wanted to do.”

Susy soon discovered that Greater Manchester Police were running free RJ training courses in Tameside. She quickly secured a place and over the course of four weekends she completed the course and secured permission to work on Restorative Justice in the borough for an initial half day a week.

“The first thing I did was link in with a lot of the Offender Managers (OM’s) to explain what I was doing. I got a really good response and started getting referrals very quickly. I also formed a good relationship with New Charter, the Housing Association in Tameside, who’ve always been very supportive of Restorative Justice. They gave me a room to use for free for the conferences, something they still do, which is very important as you should always aim to hold conferences on neutral ground.

“To begin with I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I wasn’t even sure that people would actually turn up but thankfully that’s never happened. I quickly learned that even with offences that on the face of it might not seem particularly emotive these meetings can still end up being very emotional occasions. Often people on both sides are reduced to tears.

“But there’s also this feeling of such good will in the room. People have an intrinsic desire to connect with each other. I don’t think its good for people to hold onto adversarial thoughts and feelings and as soon as you give people an opportunity to let that go they grab hold of it.”

As word spread the scheme took off and Susy’s half day became a full day and then two. Soon she was asked to coordinate Restorative Justice cases for CGM CRC across Manchester and Salford, including working with the Intensive Community Order (ICO) team who specialise in working with the difficult to reach age group of 18-25 tear olds.

But no successful programme works in isolation, as Susy is keen to stress.

“One of the striking features about Restorative Justice is how it fosters such a collegiate atmosphere between the various agencies within the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Everyone, from the prisons to the police, through to the National Probation Service and the other CRC’s we work with have always gone the extra mile where RJ is concerned.

“In prisons and probation the work done surrounding victim awareness is often vital to the success of Restorative Justice. In prison it’s often Chaplains who play a leading role, helping make programmes such as Sycamore Tree and SORI a success.

“At CGM CRC Helen Latham, the manager of the ICO team, designed an excellent victim awareness pack that gets offenders to think about all those affected by their behaviour. For many offenders it’s a wakeup call and they start not only to feel like they want to change for the better but they also start to feel remorse, they start thinking about ways to redress what they’ve done.”

Throughout her time working in Restorative Justice Susy has always strived to give the victims of crime a voice in the CJS.

“Less than 2% of victims go to court to hear the outcome of a case and although they’re sometimes asked to write a Victim Impact Statement, which can be very hard to do, there’s no guarantee that this will actually be used in court. The fact is that victims can, all too often, feel that justice can be remote and that they don’t have a voice in the system. Restorative Justice can give them that voice.

“In every case I work on I remember a piece of advice I was given when I first joined probation, that whatever you’re dealing with you must always have the victim on your shoulder. I’ve never forgotten that and I never leave them out of the equation. And it works.

“A lot of people say you can’t work with both sides but with RJ you can. It does require you to be impartial, but actually what you really are is pro both sides and if you’re professional and confident in what you’re doing it’s perfectly possible to work with both sides for the best outcome for everyone.”

Whilst every case is challenging in its own way one really stands outin her memory.

Tim & Khamran

Tim & Khamran

Before Restorative Justice brought them together again Tim and Kamran had met only once in an encounter that had been both brutal and brief. Tim, a lecturer at Salford University, had been returning home after an evening with friends when Khamran attacked and robbed him on a quiet train platform in Hyde, Greater Manchester. The attack was unprovoked and savage, leaving Tim with the loss of three teeth and requiring dental surgery. Khamran was sentenced to four years for the assault.

“Inside prison Khamran took the Sycamore Tree victim awareness course and by his own admission he gradually began to face up to what he’d done. Feelings of remorse began to grow and he started to turn his life around and after two years he was released on licence. And that’s where I came in.

“By that stage Khamran had already been released and the terms of his probation set, so he had no hidden agenda for participating in Restorative Justice. He simply wanted to make some redress for what he had done, so I agreed to approach Tim to see if he also wanted to engage with the process.

“The possibility of taking part in Restorative justice was raised with Tim after the attack but when we met he told me that back then it had felt too soon, too intrusive. He said that then he was angry and that he needed to be angry, but now a few years down the line he found he felt differently.

“Tim is a truly remarkable man and when he heard about how Khamran had changed he told me that there were few opportunities in life to be truly altruistic. If Khamran had changed for the better then then he wanted to engage in the process and support him. When he said that I just knew that of all the cases I’ve done this was going to be the big one.

“Khamran told Tim about his life, about the path he had taken to that platform in Hyde. He told him about how from the age of 16, despite the good home he came from, he’d taken one bad decision after another. Separating himself from his family, using and dealing drugs and joining a gang.

“He didn’t try to evade responsibility or minimise the appalling nature of what he did. Instead he chose to face up to his crime and to try to apologise for it, to try to assure Tim that he genuinely felt remorse and because of those feelings he was actively trying to be a better person and how to that end he’d found work and had enrolled on an apprenticeship.

“Tim also spoke honestly about how he and his how his wife had been deeply affected by the attack, about the lasting pain and anguish Khamran’s actions had caused. But he also spoke about his own life and the happiness he had known.

“And then he said something quite remarkable, he said he wanted something like that for Khamran and that though he wasn’t a religious man if he were he would give him his blessing. At that point everyone in the room broke down.

“That’s the power of Restorative Justice. It can bring out the very best in people from situations that had previously brought out the very worst.”

Susy is also keen to let people know that the benefits of Restorative Justice don’t just lie in its emotionally cathartic nature or in the fact that it gives victims a much needed voice in the CJS.

“I’ve now completed twenty cases and out of all those only one offender has re-offended. When you remember that it costs on average more than £36,000 a year to imprison someone that means work the work in Restorative Justice undertaken by CGM CRC will have saved the taxpayer a great deal of money.

“From my own perspective my work has given me a sense of participating in something incredibly worthwhile, there’s no question about that. From day one I’ve always felt that being able to help bring people together, to help them heal and to have a voice has been an absolute privilege.”