Is Restorative Justice a solution to the growing problem of hate crime?

Some 15 years ago I had the pleasure of helping to establish a Restorative Justice system in Slovakia while working for the UK Department for International Development. In Slovakia, the victims of hate crimes were mostly Roma ethnic minority people, who comprised about 10% of the population. It seemed an ideal way of resolving racist and discriminatory conflicts, as well as other crimes and disputes. That was the first time I understood what Restorative Justice could achieve.

But first, what is this Restorative Justice? The Restorative Justice Council says “Restorative justice brings those harmed by crime or conflict and those responsible for the harm into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward”. Face-to-face communication that is mediated in a controlled environment by a trained professional. A typical criminal justice approach has a trial with a winner and a loser. Parties to the process even talk about having “their day in court”. Of course for very serious or complex crimes a trial is still appropriate. But what about someone shouting racist abuse at a Muslim woman on the street? Will that incident actually come before a magistrate or judge? Possibly not if the perpetrator did not threaten or use violence. The tests that the Crown Prosecution Service apply to decide whether to prosecute someone are outlined in my ebook guide to helping victims of hate crime. Could the cheaper and, in my view, often more effective solution of Restorative Justice be a better process in such cases? One in which both the victim and the offender come together in a mediated environment to discuss what has happened, why it has happened and how it can be repaired. Restorative Justice empowers the victim and gives that person a voice, something that isn’t so clear in the long process of a typical court case. Of course it depends on both the victim and perpetrator agreeing to participate in Restorative Justice, and the criminal justice system allowing for this to happen. But communication between the two that explores the hurt caused and looks for solutions, is surely worth trying.

There is another important reason why Restorative Justice should be an option in hate incidents. Many people do not report hate crimes to the police because they do not want to go to court. They feel intimidated by the criminal justice system. Some evidence. Six months ago Herts GATE set up, in collaborationwith other Gypsy, Traveller and Roma organisations, an excellent reporting website for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma victims of race hate www.reportracismGRT.com. The site has had over 100 reports. Of these 80% did not report the incident to the police. The reasons why will vary, but a fear of the whole criminal justice process is a key reason.

An example. A Roma woman in East London has been repeatedly subjected to hate, verbal and physical, while selling The Big Issue magazine on the streets. Local businesses have supported her and often called the police when they have seen an incident occurring. The police, after admittedly being slow to recognise that it was a hate crime, have now given her protection. But she doesn’t want to go to court, feeling that the questioning and environment in a court room will be deeply embarrassing and stressful for her. She just wants the hate incidents to stop.

The previous government’s hate crime plan in 2012 ‘Challenge it, report it, stop it: The government’s plan to tackle hate crime’ explicitly recognised the importance of Restorative Justice with an action point to ‘Assess scope for alternative disposals, including Restorative Justice to offer an alternative response to less serious hate crimes’. Admittedly Restorative Justice was not mentioned in the 2016 plan ‘Action against hate: the UK government’s plan for tackling hate crime’.

Statistics from 2015-16 show that there were 62,518 hate incidents recorded by the police in England and Wales, an increase of 19% over the previous year. With significant non-reporting, the true figure is much higher. What is clear is that hate crime is a social problem that requires an appropriate response.

However there have been few trials in the UK of using Restorative Justice for hate crime/hate speech incidents, a two year study by Dr Mark Austin Walters, a lecturer in law at the University of Sussex, found. Dr Walters cites research by Alyssa Shenk that ‘Victim-offender mediation fills many of the gaps in hate crime legislation. By placing emphasis on the victim’s needs, victim-offender mediation will likely encourage victims to report future incidents not hate crime’. Dr Walters own research found a strong case for Restorative Justice using well-trained mediators.

Although it is of the upmost importance that the mediators of Restorative Justice are trained, they do not have to be legal professionals. Non Governmental Organisation workers, police and community support officers, amongst others, could all undertake this role, and in fact the Restorative Justice Council has many of these as accredited practitioners. So what really is stopping us from testing and trialling Restorative Justice for victims and perpetrators of hate crime? The political will is probably there (in that it was mentioned in a government policy document), a professional body exists to advise and oversee the practice, and there is an existing body of trained practitioners.

It probably needs someone with influence to champion the cause. Any readers up for it?

Alan Anstead is Coordinator of the UK Race and Europe Network