On Thursday the 15th of March councillors on Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee will discuss bringing a new form of restorative justice to Cambridge.
Meetings called “Neighbourhood Resolution Panels” which would involve “offenders” discussing their actions with their victims in sessions chaired by volunteers, potentially university law students, are proposed. The meetings would only take place where “offenders” and victims volunteer to attend and participate.
I have put “offenders” in inverted commas as those responsible for non-criminal “anti-social behaviour”, or involved in neighbour-neighbour disputes, would also be offered the opportunity to attend the panels. The panels are not courts, they will not determine guilt or innocence. Only those who admit their offence or behaviour will be eligible to participate.
The proposal is to offer the panels alongside existing out of court disposals such as fixed penalty notices and cautions. As the existing formal processes will continue I support the council’s experiment subject to the questions and concerns noted below.
A proposal document will be presented to the committee by council officer Liz Bisset (Salary an astronomical £91,891 per year). There are many areas of ambiguity and many questions left unanswered by the proposal.
What incentives are there for offenders to participate?
The proposal document states a basic principle of the scheme will be it is voluntary, neither offender or victim will be compelled to participate. What is much less clear is how offenders may be coerced or persuaded to take part. Hints are given that an offender might be able to avoid being charged with an offence by volunteering for the scheme and if they fail to fulfil the requirements of an agreement signed at a panel meeting their case may be referred back to the police or CPS for them to reconsider their charging decision. I think there needs to be much greater clarity and honesty on this point.
No indication is given of how many offenders the council expects to deal with under the scheme. The council document refers to a similar scheme in Sheffield, according to one evaluation report this dealt with 20 referrals; 18 from the police and two from housing associations from June to November 2009.
Will panel sessions be open to the public?
The council’s proposal is based on a Ministry of Justice specification document, this states: “the Panel should look to communicate the results of their activity back to the community”, the Cambridge scheme contains no provisions for doing this.
I suggest holding adult panel meetings in public to enable reporting on their operation. I would like to see lists of all cases to be discussed at panels published, along with details of the agreements reached, and perhaps a summary of what happened at the panel meeting (subject to the same kind of reporting restrictions which prevent the identification of child offenders as apply in the courts).
Where the Cambridge residents at large are victims, or where behaviour has influenced a whole road or neighbourhood, I think there is a case for holding panel meetings in public. Offenders could perhaps in some cases be invited to ward based meetings or the city’s area committees to discuss their actions.
Who will provide oversight and monitor the scheme’s operation?
The Government’s specification document strongly recommends oversight arrangements involving local Magistrates and others. There are no proposals for oversight in the proposal document for the Cambridge scheme.
What records will be kept?
I think it is important to be clear what will be recorded, how long will records be kept for and who will they be shared with? The Cambridge proposal is for informal agreements to be reached during the panel sessions, and not more formal Anti-Social Behaviour Contracts, if this means an individual’s record at panel meetings would be reported to a court if they eventually appeared in-front of one is not made clear. My concern here is that following the instruction of this, and other schemes, Magistrates may not get as full a picture of an individual’s record of offending as they would have done previously.
What offences and behaviours will the panels be used for?
This is a really important question, but the proposal for the Cambridge scheme lacks clarity in this area too.
I expect there is an error in the Cambridge proposal where it states:
At present Cambridgeshire Constabulary believes that the range of offences to which RJ could be applied would be those where a gravity score of two or more would apply, excluding those that involves drugs, weapons or a sexual motivation.
I suspect it perhaps ought say ” a gravity score of two or less would apply. This is indicative of the sloppy way in which the proposal is presented. Offences with a “gravity score” of 2 or below, is the same criteria as Cambridgeshire Police are currently using to determine if an offence is automatically acceptable for their on-street “instant reparation” form of “restorative justice”, and these panels are being described as being for more serious offences, so it isn’t clear at all.
Councillors have not been given a copy of the full gravity scoring tables as part of their documents; it looks as if a link was intended to be provided but this is non-fuctional (simply a coloured and underlined word) in the published material.
I have concerns at both ends of the spectrum; I am concerned that these panels may be invoked in relation to behaviour which is perfectly legal and acceptable, such as gathering in groups, even though that may cause alarm, and/or prompt calls to the police or council from some people.
Who will represent the “victim” where the offence, or action, impacts the public at large and not a specific individual?
This is a question I have asked in relation to on-street instant reparation as well, and it his not been addressed either in that context or in relation to the proposed panels. The Ministry of Justice specification states: “” For offences where there is no specific victim, representatives of the community may attend.” I’ve asked if any of my local councillors have yet given approval for restorative justice to be used in a specific case and been told they have not. I would like to know if councillors are to represent “the community” at Cambridge’s “Neighbourhood Resolution Panels”.
What efforts are being made to make this a good experiment?
This is a trial which the Ministry of Justice is going to seek to evaluate. I suggest steps ought be taken to ensure it is a good experiment, for example making it into a randomised control trial and considering working with academics. Care should be taken to ensure results from Cambridge are comparable with those obtained elsewhere.
How can “no-fault” cases be dealt with if a pre-requsite is an offender admitting their guilt?
I cannot see how if acceptance of guilt or responsibility is a pre-requesite for a panel hearing the system can be used in cases described as “no-fault” as the Cambridge proposal states.
Section 2 of the Cambridge proposal cites research showing restorative justice is effective at reducing re-offending. The citation given is to a book: “Shapland, J., Robinson, G. and Sorsby, A. (2011) Restorative justice in practice. London: Routledge”. Link to book page on publisher’s website. (Amazon).
Citing the book isn’t in my view very helpful, given the research discussed in the book, which was funded by the Ministry of Justice, has been made publicly available. The work is an evaluation of three Home Office funded schemes run from mid 2001 to 2003/4, all are three involve quite different circumstances to those proposed for Cambridge’s “Neighbourhood Resolution Panels” :
- CONNECT – involving adult offenders mainly between conviction and sentence
- JRC – After guilty plea, before sentence, with the exemption of some case in Northumbria, but even there the individuals were due to appear in Crown Court. (This was a randomised trial)
- REMEDI – wide range of stages, but those mentioned are all post-sentence, or post-action.
This is the same research which was used to justify Cambridgeshire Police’s instant on-street reparation, and I opposed its use for that purpose on the grounds I could see almost no parallels between post-court restorative meetings and the on-street reparations, which do not generally involve meetings. There is still a huge gulf between post-court meetings, and what is proposed in Cambridge which is meetings in relation to offences or behaviour which would have, and is to be, dealt with out of court. However there is more of a connection in this case as the key aspect of a meeting between the offender / person responsible and the victim is a common factor. I would still be very cautious about extrapolating from intervention at one point in the justice process with interventions elsewhere. I think a major omission from the report is noting the differences between the form of restorative justice in the cited research and what is being proposed.
Clearly at the moment I only have so much information to go on, and there are very many unanswered questions about the proposals and how the scheme in Cambridge is intended to operate. Based on the available information my views are:
- I think we have to do better at reforming offenders, and its worth doing these experiments to see if restorative justice can help. I think there are benefits to victims too as they may gain a greater understanding of what happened to them and why.
- I am concerned about the increasing use of out of court, and civil rather than criminal, penalties for offenders. Where serious offences are committed I think they should be heard in court.
- There is emerging evidence that restorative justice meetings have been successful when used alongside the due process of a court. I therefore question why in Cambridgeshire we’re starting with these experiments, rather than at least in parallel doing what appears to work elsewhere.
- Some quoted statistics for the success of restorative justice appear questionable, for example the Cambridge proposal cites work done by Sheffield City Council who have run a similar scheme saying:
The re-offending rate for young people taking part in RJ was 5.2 percent against the national re-offending rate for other forms of disposal of 39.2 percent.
however this doesn’t show conclusively there is an effect from the restorative meetings, just that those offenders who are prepared to volunteer to take part in such meetings have lower rates of reoffending than the national average.
- I am concerned this might be a slippery slope, already instances of offenders being sentenced by a court to participate in a restorative justice meeting have occurred. (p vii of this PDF)
- While the currently proposed scheme would run in parallel with existing out of court disposals, or operate where otherwise no action would have been taken, I am concerned that in the future it may be extended to be used instead of formal action, which in the case of the more serious eligible offences would not be appropriate.
- This is an expansion of the city council’s role. I’m generally in favour of a small state and am astounded at the number of staff within the council, I question if this expansion is necessary or desirable. The council needs to work closely with the police, courts, and other bodies on a wide rage of subjects, but I don’t think it should start encroaching on their roles. .
The Cambridge Scheme
Involvement in the Cambridge scheme is to be limited to those “offenders” who would not otherwise have gone to court, ie. those who no action would have been taken against or those who would have been formally dealt with via out of court disposals (eg. cautions, or Fixed Penalty Notices). In the latter cases the formal process will continue and the restorative justice meeting will, if taken up, be in addition to that.
If that model is stuck to, and the restorative justice meetings are kept an optional add-on to what would happen anyway, I think that goes a long way to dealing with any objections to them. However with all such things, if this is the starting point, I think there needs to be a consideration of where we could end up.
“Anti-social behaviour (ASB) that is not serious enough to prosecute” is included in the scope of the scheme and it isn’t clear from the proposal document what that might include. I am concerned that we might see people being asked to attend these panels for things like gathering in groups; while some people might be genuinely alarmed by such behaviour and consider it anti-social I don’t think it ought be remotely criminalised.
Overall I’m not keen on spending time and resources on otherwise non-criminal “anti-social behaviour”. Almost every time I’ve heard someone raise a concern about “anti-social behaviour” their real concern has been criminality and they have simply been using the phrase “anti-social behaviour” because they think they need use the jargon to be heard. When “anti-social behaviour” is discussed in public meetings almost invariably members of the public say things like: “Can I talk about burglary, is that considered anti-social behaviour?”, “Can I talk about criminal damage, is that considered anti-social behaviour?” etc. I’d rather the focus was on such genuine criminality, things which were criminal before New Labour’s Anti-Social behaviour laws.
I am concerned about the involvement of these panels in circumstances where previously the state would not have intervened at all.
As well as having cases referred to them by the police the “Neighbourhood Resolution Panels” will also consider cases referred from the city council’s housing officers, other parts of the city council, and housing associations.
The proposal indicates the scheme may go into schools (but notably not the city’s universities or other institutions) as well.
To a large extent it appears what the council is effectively considering offering is a mediation and informal dispute resolution service.
Officer Bisset in her report states:
“The outline scheme proposed here has been developed in partnership with, and has the full support of, the police and other criminal justice system agencies.”
The proposal also suggests consultations have been carried out, but the results of these have not been presented to councillors, beyond the above assertion. Nationwide magistrates have been expressing concern about the use of out-of-court disposals, and this was echoed by the Cambridge magistrate’s representative at the December 2011 Community Safety Partnership meeting. I would like to know what our local magistrates think about the council’s proposals.
The only budget is for staffing, to be spent employing a worker for 18.5 hours a week over the two year period, costing £16,000 per annum including on-costs.
Level Of Offences
The council document describing the scheme proposed for Cambridge doesn’t cite it, but I suspect the gravity scores being referred to are the “ACPO Guidelines on Case Disposal Gravity – Youth Offenders” (Hints of which can be gleaned from in the appendix to this document and from p34 of this PDF from Dyfed Powys Police.
The following are examples of non-sexual and non-drugs related “Level 2 offences” from the latter document:
- Common Assault
- Criminal Damage
- Threat to Destroy Property of Another
- Possession of Articles with Intent to Commit Criminal Damage
- False Alarms to Emergency Services
- Possessing a false document with intent
- Forgery of documents etc.
- Threatening abusive or insulting words or behaviour intended to cause fear of violence or to provoke violence
- Inconsiderate Driving
- No ‘L’ plates
- ‘L’ driver unaccompanied
- No Test Certificate
- Wasting Police Time
- Making Off Without Payment
- Interference with Vehicle
- Tampering with Motor Vehicle
- Taking Vehicle without Consent
- False Accounting
- Obtaining Services by Deception
- Going Equipped to Steal
- Abstracting Electricity
In relation to criminal offences the Cambridge proposal limits the use of panels to:
Summary only offences that have or will receive a formal out- of-court disposal (for example minor criminal damage or public disorder) but which the work of the panel could complement by agreeing for additional reparative activity to be undertaken by the offender
A summary only offence is one which can be dealt with by magistrates, (or a district judge sitting in their place) but cannot be referred to the Crown Court.
I don’t think it is an accident that a clear list is missing from the meeting papers.
What I’d like councillors to do at, and before, the committee:
- Ask to see consultation responses from magistrates, and others, and have the documents tabled at the meeting and posted online.
- Clarify if on p140 the “two or more” is an error and “two or less” is what ought be written.
- Approve the continued development of proposed scheme subject to:
- Clear aims being identified.
- Working with academics and/or the ministry of justice to refine the details of how the proposal will operate with the aim of making it a useful experiment from which robust conclusions can be drawn.
- Developing a publicity strategy, aimed at maximising openness and transparency while protecting the privacy of offenders and victims.
- Establishing mechanisms for oversight of the operation of the panels.
- Clearly limiting approval to the scheme as described, requiring a return to councillors if the scope of the scheme was to change; specifically if it was to move to being used instead of, rather than as well as, established out of court disposals.
- Complain about the quality of the proposal document in relation to:
- Unhelpful choice of citations, proposal not fully reflecting content of material cited. eg. citing Shapland’s book and not the openly accessible research and providing no citation for the performance figures from the Sheffield City Council scheme
- Failure to clearly set out which offences are eligible. How does the ACPO gravity score system relate to the Ministry of Justice table in the proposal?
- Ask for details of the proposed scale of the proposed scheme, ie. how many panels, dealing with how many offenders is envisaged.
- Clarify any incentives for offenders to participate in a panel meeting and to comply with any agreement reached.
- Discuss tailoring the scheme to Cambridge, for example if and how it ought apply to cycling offences and speeding in the 20mph zones for example.
- Ask the council to lobby for the introduction of restorative justice meetings run by the probation service in Cambridge for those who are being dealt with by the courts (The council is represented on the probation service board).
Finally one other concern I have is that as these resources will be focused on offenders who are happy to volunteer to attend panel meetings we might be targeting the wrong people, and not focusing on the worst offenders.