Intern Katrina Mendham summarises a recent article from Bouffard, Cooper and Bergseth: The effectiveness of various restorative justice interventions on recidivism outcomes among juvenile offenders (2017, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 15(4), 465-480). The paper is important because it compares the impact of different RJ interventions on youth recidivism, finding that even RJ practices without victim-offender dialogue may perform better than prosecution on this measure of success.
Restorative justice (RJ) interventions for juvenile offenders, even those that do not involve direct communication with a victim, reduce recidivism risk relative to court proceedings. It is possible to use less intensive and indirect RJ approaches and still receive promising results.
This research examined the effects of four variations of a restorative justice (RJ) programme on recidivism outcomes for juvenile offenders. RJ programmes typically involve non-adversarial, informal processes and interactions between victims, offenders and any other persons impacted by the offence. These programmes incorporate decision-making by group consensus rather than a single justice system authority, in an attempt to encourage offender accountability, to repair the harm caused by the crime to the extent possible, and to reduce the likelihood of recidivism by identifying and resolving any factors that precipitated the offence.
The authors compared the impact of four RJ interventions: direct victim-offender mediation (VOM); indirect mediation, involving a neutral third party to negotiate an agreement without face-to-face contact between the victim and offender; community panels, involving a reparative board responsible for monitoring the progress of the offender and reporting back to the court; and minimal RJ processing, involving only an initial, educational meeting between the facilitator and offender. While a growing body of research (including prior research by these authors) supports the efficacy and implementation of RJ programmes, relatively little research has compared the recidivism reducing effects of variations in RJ programmes. This study explored whether each type of intervention produced a statistically significant reduction in the likelihood of reoffending, relative to a similar group of juvenile offenders who received traditional juvenile court processing.
Of the sample of 551 juveniles in this study, 284 were referred to the RJ programme and 267 were referred to court. To examine the outcomes for juveniles experiencing different RJ processes and the reasons why RJ interventions might produce beneficial results, the RJ group was subdivided into those participating in direct mediation, indirect mediation, community panels, and single meetings with a facilitator. The authors gathered recidivism data, including all officially recorded contact with law enforcement and other juvenile justice system personnel after the date of the initial referral to either the RJ intervention or court. The recidivism data included the date of contact and the offence level and type. To determine the long term effects of RJ participation, the young people were followed for up to four years. The study accounted for several initial group differences that might impact the likelihood of reoffending: age at referral, gender, ethnicity, residency and offending history. A series of analyses examined whether significant differences in recidivism risk were found between the young people receiving different interventions, and controlling for these factors.
During the follow up period, 40.1% of the total sample of 551 juveniles experienced a new officially recorded contact with the justice system, with the average time to the first reoffence being 12.35 months. Juveniles referred to court evidenced greater recidivism, with 49.8% having at least one new official contact. Those receiving direct mediation (33.5%), indirect mediation (27.3%), minimal RJ contact (30.8%) and community panels (24.2%) all had lower reoffending risks. Moreover, even after controlling for age, ethnicity, gender, residency and criminal history, juveniles who participated in each of the RJ programmes refrained from offending for longer than similar persons who were referred to court. This relationship was statistically significant in three of the four comparisons (direct mediation, indirect mediation, and the minimal RJ group). Young people who participated in a RJ community panel also had a longer time until reoffending than those who were referred to court, but this difference was not statistically significant. These results are important as they suggest that less intensive RJ interventions still delivered promising results, compared with prosecution in court.
Additionally, young people with more extensive offending histories (i.e. a larger number of prior contacts) reoffended more quickly than those with less extensive offense histories, and older children remained offence free longer than children who were younger at the time of referral. Considering these results, it may be possible to use the less intense processes with younger offenders without criminal histories, and reserve the more intensive variations of RJ for those who repeatedly commit high levels of harm. Screening for this information and using it to allocate appropriate cases to the less intensive RJ interventions could potentially permit a larger number of cases to be handled with a minimum of resources, as even limited interactions with a facilitator may reduce the risk of recidivism (relative to court) for some.
While the results of this study show promise that young people may be less likely to reoffend after different RJ interventions than if prosecuted, the study is not without limitations. Results from this programme – which operated in a relatively small, largely rural community – may not be generalisable to programmes in urban areas. Secondly, the small sample size restricted the researchers’ ability to examine effects between the separate versions of the RJ programme and certain offender characteristics, such as offence type. However, given that participants in RJ programmes often report high degrees of satisfaction with the intervention, and that other studies find similar potential for recidivism reductions through RJ and through diversion from court more widely, these findings indicate that RJ can have better outcomes than traditional court proceedings, even at a low intensity and with limited resources.