Research assistant David Ruttledge’s first summary outlines key findings from the paper by Diana Batchelor, Restoring Choice: The Relationship between Offence Seriousness, Intervening Time, and Victims’ Responses to the Offer of Restorative Interventions (2017, Victims & Offenders, 12(2), 205-232). This found that offence seriousness and time since the offence interacted in interesting ways to inform whether victims wished to participate in different restorative interventions.
To maximise the chances of a restorative justice process meeting victims’ needs, practitioners should help victims focus on how they were affected by a crime, rather than on their perceptions towards the offender or offence.
John Braithwaite and Howard Zehr proposed victim-centeredness as a key value of restorative justice. However, research on restorative justice within western criminal justice systems has found noticeable disparities in the extent to which services adhere to this value. This can result in victims playing a more marginal role than that originally proposed.
Restorative justice interventions are typically associated with reductions in recidivism and high levels of victim satisfaction. However, as the victim’s role within RJ depends on the way that the process is delivered, which differs between services and jurisdictions, the underlying causes of these outcomes remain understudied. For example, we know little about the reasons why victims participate or not, and what services can do to encourage participation. One study by Gehm (1990) measured the effects of real influences on victims’ choices, finding that victims were significantly more likely to participate if the offence was a misdemeanour. Batchelor suggests three explanations for this:
- Victims’ perceptions of the offence: Research suggests that victims’ choices are informed by the concept of ‘just deserts’. As a crime increases in seriousness, therefore, their desire to punish the offender increases – although this does not always correlate with the harm incurred by the victim.
- Victims’ perceptions of the offender: Victims are more likely to attribute internal motivation to offences of greater seriousness and are more in favour of severe punishment if they believe the offender was motivated internally. Furthermore, as crimes increase in seriousness, offenders are perceived more as part of a ‘criminal subculture’ and therefore decreasingly as part of one’s own group. This results in a lower chance of a victim choosing a restorative intervention.
- Effects of the crime on the victim: Research suggests that the relationship between crime seriousness and the victim’s choice results from ‘psychological anxiety’. That is, victims consider the risk to themselves, calculated as a factor of the harm caused by the offence, as part of a cost-benefit analysis of whether or not to participate in a direct meeting with the offender.
Batchelor investigates the influence of offence seriousness and the time between victimisation and the offer of a restorative intervention, on victims’ responses to an offer of participation in restorative interventions. She used a cross-sectional, between-subjects design and assessed 256 offences across 138 offenders and 237 victims. Victim choice was measured by recording the victim’s decision after offering them communication with the offender (including options of direct and indirect communication/reparation and community reparation). Seriousness of the offence was measured using a 1-8 scale of seriousness, whether the offence was committed primarily ‘against the person’ or ‘against property’, and whether victims mentioned significant emotional effects of the offence. Intervening time was measured by the number of days between the recorded date of the offence and the first phone call made by the restorative justice officer to the victim. Statistical analysis was used to explore what factors affect victim decisions whether to participate in RJ interventions.
Aligned with previous literature, victims of less serious offences were more likely to participate in restorative interventions than those of more serious offences. However, when other factors are considered, this relationship becomes more complex. For instance, victims of medium-seriousness offences were more likely to choose direct reparation over community reparation than were victims of either low or high seriousness offences. This indicates a nonlinear relationship between offence seriousness and victim choice, possibly in the shape of an inverted u-curve. Therefore, it could be that perceptions of the offence and the offender decrease the likelihood of involvement as seriousness increases, while the effects of the crime on the victim lead to increased involvement as seriousness increases.
There was a moderate effect of intervening time on the relationship between the seriousness of the crime and the victim’s choice of restorative intervention. However, the effects were different for each type of reparation. For instance, the time between the offence and offer of intervention made no difference to victim choice in the most serious crimes. In contrast, for moderate crimes, the longer the time between the offence and the offer of an RJ intervention, the less likely it was for a victim to choose direct/indirect reparation over community reparation. Finally, for less serious crimes, the longer the time before intervention, the more likely victims were to choose community reparation over nonparticipation.
This study found that, over time, community reparation became the default option for most victims. This could be the result of victims being more motivated to engage in community reparation by their perceptions of the offender and offence as opposed to its impact on them. For less serious crimes, victims might not be convinced of the need for any reparation if they feel that they were unaffected by the crime. However, as time passes, these victims are much more likely to resort to community reparation over all other interventions. This choice could be motivated more by victims’ perceptions of the offence and offender, than by how they were affected. For moderate crimes, it appears that the effects of the crime begin to decrease as time passes. Therefore, victims in this category are less motivated to become involved and more likely to choose community reparation, as opposed to direct/indirect communication or reparation. Finally, for more serious crimes, it would appear that the effects of the crime subsided very little over time, and the propensity to select from different restorative interventions changed little over time. This is not surprising, as the literature suggests that victims are affected by serious crimes for on average 6-12 months.
Overall, this article provides an important insight into the disparity between what victims choose and what the literature suggests is most likely to meet their needs in terms of restorative interventions. Previous research suggests that higher victim satisfaction rates with restorative justice are associated with more serious offences. However, this research suggests that victims are more likely to participate when the offence is less serious, thus leaving practitioners facing a dilemma. Although ethical and practical guidelines suggest that RJ should occur only through voluntary participation, the distinction between informing, encouraging or persuading victims remains subjective. The subjectiveness of this opinion requires ethical and professional consideration moving forward.