Historically, young offenders have been processed and treated in a comparable manner to adult offenders. However, with the rise of the RJ philosophy and methodology, young people were some of the first to be trailed in this new and innovative paradigm. Over thirty years later, RJ has increasingly built a good name and continues to play a powerful role in youth justice. Around the world, due to RJ approaches and practices, many young people have been diverted and discouraged from pursuing careers of crime.
“The concept of restorative justice is always applicable, that is we ask: What are the harms that have happened? What are the needs that have resulted? Whose obligations are they? How do we engage people in the process? To what extent can we engage people in the process? Those questions are always valid.”Professor Howard Zehr
For many young offenders, crime does not occur in a vacuum, separate from the rest of life, but rather is aggravated by other circumstances or problems that exist. For example, there are parents, teachers, peers, and a whole range of other social, or relational, features and elements involved.
In a retributive system, however, many young offenders are processed and sentenced without physical, emotional, and spiritual needs being sufficiently appraised and addressed. Once a victim gets to prison, or some other sentencing result, these needs are often only exacerbated and can detrimentally affect their health and prospect of healing.
Research suggests that RJ practices with youth offenders have led to many promising outcomes, through programs like conferencing, victim-offender mediation, and circle sentencing. In Australia, where indigenous youth over-representation is a considerable concern, these diversionary programs for young people can lead to life-changing beneficial impacts for the offenders and their families. Especially in youth RJ, it is considered important to involve the peers and role models that surround both the offender and victim. This vividly reminds all involved that crime is not isolated, but involves relationships and the community that surrounds these people. And it is often only the RJ approach that helpfully acknowledges this reality.
RJ is based on the recognition that each party involved in the offense – offender, victim, and community – has needs and possibly trauma, and healing must take place.
As many key professionals have suggested, it must be recognised that RJ and the traditional criminal justice system do not need to be mutually exclusive. Each brings a different perspective and, with those different perspectives, different goals and results. When we consider the reality of youth crime, it can be appreciated that RJ can have great results for youth offenders, diverting them from a cyclic and recurring recidivism reality.
During RJ World 2020, we will hear from presenters on the topic of youth RJ. Youth present unique needs and obligations according to a RJ paradigm, which must be genuinely recognised and met with appropraite and sensitive practice.