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Restorative justice not easy

Restorative justice not easy

Restorative justice was introduced in New Zealand in 2000. Some see it as an easy way for offenders to get a reduced sentence but that is far from the truth. Sharon Davis takes a look at how restorative justice works.

A 34-year-old man stands uncomfortably in the dock.

Part of his “fractious” family relationship is playing out in the Family Court but an alleged breach of protection order has brought him before Judge Dominic Dravitzki in the Ashburton District Court.

He had earlier denied contravening the protection order in favour of his former father-in-law but changed his plea to guilty.

It’s alleged the man followed his father-in-law - who was on a school run to pick up his grandchild - and shouted something about the man's daughter being crackhead.

After outlining his defence, the man’s lawyer said he did not think restorative justice was worth pursuing because of the ongoing "fractious" family dynamic.

Restorative Justice Facilitator Bronwyn McKenna sitting to the side of the court visibly bristled and muttered quietly. "But that's the whole point of restorative justice!"

The police prosecutor also said he thought restorative justice was likely to fail.

However, Judge Dravitzki remanded the case to allow restorative justice to go ahead.

The judge acknowledged there was no guarantee restorative justice would help, but he believed it was worth a try.

"Challenge accepted," McKenna said quietly to herself.

McKenna has been working in restorative justice for seven years.

She is part of a group of four facilitators working for Safer Mid Canterbury, which has the restorative justice contract for the Ashburton, Timaru and Oamaru district courts.

Speaking to the Guardian a few days after the referral, McKenna said it was important to give restorative justice a chance, particularly when a young child was involved.

There would be years of contact - from birthdays to weddings - and restorative justice could help to put systems in place to ease communication and stress.

McKenna believes restorative justice is an important part of New Zealand's justice system and can allow both parties to see things from the other's perspective and move forward.

"We unpack issues and provide a platform for a conversation that will never happen otherwise," she said.

Restorative justice can also reduce reoffending.

A study done in 2014 found restorative justice reduced reoffending by 18%, but in McKenna's experience it is higher than that.

In seven years, she’s seen fewer than half a dozen offenders who attended restorative justice come back through the courts.

Once an offender has admitted an offence, any case with a named victim has the right to restorative justice - whether it is $9 shoplifting, theft, family violence, assault or manslaughter.

The restorative justice team usually has between six and eight weeks to arrange a restorative justice conference before the offender is back in court for sentencing.

The facilitator meets with the victim and the offender separately for a confidential pre-conference meeting.

The meetings are voluntary, said Mckenna.

Victims are able to tell their stories in a safe space and “let it all out”.

Facilitators try to help as much as possible. This could include linking people with an advocate, contacting womens' refuge, or preparing the documents needed to ask for reparation, she said.

But often the most important part for the victim was to sit with someone who would just listen.

"On the flip side, for the offender, we listen to their story. They often offer an explanation - and we can track how they got there."

More than 90% of the time, offenders have suffered childhood trauma which presented as learning difficulties, mental health issues or anti-social behaviour, McKenna said.

Facilitators help with referrals for budgeting advice or suggest programmes for stopping violence or drinking.

“We don’t mince words with offenders. We make sure they hold themselves accountable and talk through aspects of the harm they might not have thought of and help them to see things from the victim’s shoes. But we do this with empathy," McKenna said.

If both parties are happy to meet, and the facilitator feels a meeting would be productive, a restorative justice conference is arranged.

"Both parties talk through the offending – the facts and the impacts – and then look at the next steps, such as attending programmes or paying reparation," McKenna said.

In the last financial year, 82% of referrals through McKenna's office made it to pre-conference and 51% to a restorative justice conference.

McKenna said it was a misconception that restorative justice would help offenders get off lightly.

"Our report doesn’t mean the offender will get a discount or credit."

The effort might be taken into account and result in a reduced sentence, but it was not guaranteed.

"It is not an easy way out for offenders," she said.

Participants often say it is "one of the hardest things they’ve ever done".

When a family violence incident ended Nick* and Jenny's* four-year relationship, restorative justice helped to them to keep in touch and agree on shared care for their dog.

"I was real nervous. It was nerve-wracking and a big eye-opener for me. But I was glad to hear how she felt."

Nick said the meeting helped him realise he needed to work on himself and understand the reasons why he drank.

"We're in a good place. We're friends. it's good to have her in my life, still."

Nick said he didn't initially know what to expect - or hold out hope that it would go well - but he found the guidance through the process "amazing" and made him comfortable enough to talk to his ex-partner.

For Jenny the ability to talk about the incident to McKenna at the pre-conference without the feeling her family was judging her was liberating.

"It was helpful for my ex-partner to hear what he'd put me through. He had to listen to me and couldn't just shut me down."

Jenny said she was nervous before meeting with Nick.

"To sit down and relive it was scary. I didn't want to cry - but I did."

Jenny said Nick didn't remember the incident, but has now gone for counselling for anger and drinking.

The restorative justice meeting helped with Nick's sentencing an helped their relationship, she said.

McKenna said facilitating restorative justice meetings was an emotionally taxing job - but also very rewarding.

“People open up to things they haven’t told anyone else – trauma, addiction, life circumstances… there are a lot of tears,” McKenna said.

The rewards were there even if the referral doesn’t make it to a conference – whether it was practical help or helping a victim to put their anger aside.

"The rewards are little things – a hug or being told that a victim can breathe easier.

"Sometimes victims feel targeted. When they meet the offender, and find him or her respectful and remorseful, the boogie monster they built up in their minds turns back into a human being."

McKenna recalled a case where a victim of a car crash had sat building up resentment for 18 months over the lack of contact and concern from the offender.

But in instances like that, the police will tell the offender not to contact the victim, said McKenna.

In this case, the offender had written a letter of apology and a cheque for $5000 in the first few weeks after the crash, which was handed to police.

The letter and cheque sat in a police file until the oversight was uncovered through the restorative justice process, McKenna said.

"Last year we collected $30,000 in reparation prior to sentencing."

This can help victims more than having emotional harm or reparation payments drip-fed through the court system, McKenna said.

In another crash case, an immigrant did not understand how insurance worked in New Zealand and was not covered when her car was written off.

She was about to lose her job and the ripple effect was "just going to get bigger", McKenna said.

Through the restorative justice process, the victim was paid $12,000 upfront and was able to buy a replacement car.

The idea behind restorative justice was "to put things right for the victim as much as possible and to give the offender a chance to do that," McKenna said.

The current backlog in court cases and push for same-day sentencing had seen a drop off in the number of restorative justice referrals in the last year.

Judges were under pressure to push things through, McKenna said.

Across the three district courts there were 185 restorative justice referrals between July 2021 to June 2022. Of these, 32% were family harm cases.

The following year there were 208 referrals of which 30% were family harm cases, McKenna said.,

*not their real names

by Sharon Davis