At school, our R.E. Teacher tried to explain to us the difference between justice and revenge. He used the example of Batman – I forget exactly how this worked, but the main premise was that justice offers a solution, and that revenge just makes another problem from a problem. While Durham isn’t exactly Gotham City, it has its own problems which are in desperate need of solutions.
The most apparent of these problems is crime, but crime doesn’t suddenly appear from nowhere, à la Bruce Wayne. The root problems of crime are many and varied: substance abuse, homelessness and domestic abuse, to name just a few. Of course, not everyone who suffers from these issues commits crimes, just as many wealthy, healthy, happy adults do, but let’s accept the generalisation. If we hope to fight crime, where should we be looking to fix problems? Restorative justice holds the answer: we need to look at the root problems to combat crime on a more permanent basis.
Durham Constabulary is leading the way in restorative justice in the United Kingdom. Last year the force pledged to support the approach, which encourages victim interaction and social support, and in 2015 it is launching a ‘world-first’ initiative called Checkpoint. The programme is ambitious, and takes a new stance on justice: not only does it wants to bring down reoffending rates, save taxpayers’ money and cut court appearances but – and in my opinion, most excitingly – it encourages offenders to deal with the deeper, often personal, problems behind their crimes.
Durham’s Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg puts it this way: “At the heart of this is the individual, and a lot of individuals commit crime because of the situation they find themselves in.” He hopes the scheme will make criminals’ lives better as well as taking them away from crime, an idea many seem to forget. Hogg has it just right: crime is kick-started by a criminal’s circumstances, so if we can improve their situation, we can limit crime in the county. The initiative will, of course, only be open to offenders committing low-level crimes such as shoplifting, fraud and vandalism.
Durham Constabulary is optimistic about the initiative’s results: government research shows that interaction between victims and criminals provides an 85% victim satisfaction rate. Restorative justice also helps victims to deal with the repercussions of the crime, and similar techniques are now being implemented in schools in order to encourage children from a young age to deal with their misunderstandings fairly and cooperatively.
Restorative justice opens a can of worms when it comes to the crime and punishment system in the United Kingdom. We have a tendency to want every criminal to go ‘behind bars’, or ‘down for life’. This may be applicable to perpetrators of heinous crimes, who are often, it should be added, mentally disturbed. Our ‘tough justice’ attitude extends to prisons; we accuse prisoners of having it too easy, despite new measures put in place in 2013 that mean prisoners must earn perks, rather than being entitled to them.
We forget how much a person can change in five years, or even in one. But the average criminal is not so far from you or I – as we should well know, 2 series into Orange is the New Black – and is often a product of difficult circumstances. Criminals are not the villains of Batman films, they are very often decent people trapped by difficult circumstances. Durham Constabulary is leading the way towards the dawn of a better justice in the United Kingdom with Checkpoint, and I strongly hope it is an example that others will soon follow.
Photograph: Reading Tom