Judge warns on victim meetings plan
A new scheme where victims of crime ask to meet offenders will not necessarily mean softer sentences for criminals, a judge has warned.
Cardiff Crown Court is one of 10 UK courts taking part in an 18-month long restorative justice pilot project.
It aims to drive down re-offending rates by getting criminals to fully understand how their actions have affected others.
Officials hope it will also give victims a chance to finally get answers to questions which have been plaguing them and to move on with their lives.
While restorative justice has been in existence in the UK for the past two decades, contact has usually been instigated by those convicted of criminal offences.
The new trial sees the tables turned with victims directly asking those who have caused them misery for a meeting.
Among those interested to see how the scheme will pan out is Judge David Wynn Morgan, who has been on the Wales circuit since 2000.
"It is uncharted territory," he said.
"Those working in the criminal justice system often have very clearly defined roles.
"This is something that cuts right across the criminal justice system.
"It is important that there is not a great deal in it for defendants (from a sentencing point of view).
"This is a system which has been put in place for victims."
The scheme - which is also being tried out by Crown Courts in Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool - first got under way last December.
It is being operated by the Victim Support charity in co-operation with the non-profit company Restorative Solutions and funded with a £1.3 million grant from the Underwood Trust.
The programme will deal with crimes including burglary, robbery, higher level theft and assault cases. However, it will not involve those convicted of sexual or domestic violence offences.
Victim Support volunteers trained as restorative justice facilitators will approach defendants who have pleaded guilty at court.
After that, a six-week adjournment in the case is made in order for contact to be set up.
Kate Hook, national programme manager at Restorative Solutions, went through the finer details of the scheme during a talk at Cardiff Crown Court last night.
Among those listening to her presentation were several members of the criminal justice system - including barristers, members of the Probation Service, police officials and Judge Morgan.
Mrs Hook said: "Restorative justice as a concept is not a new thing. It started within the Mauri communities in New Zealand and has also been widely used in Canada for some time.
"In this country it has only started to take off within the past 15 years."
She also said it was clear that restorative justice worked and studies of a scheme in London had led to a 27% reduction in re-offending.
"The new pilot is different, though, because it is about going to victims first," she added.
She said that the issue of whether an offender taking part in the scheme would get a reduced punishment would be up to the judge in charge of sentencing.
However, Mrs Hook said the main aim was to bring about a change in their behaviour.
"We have had some quite astonishing results, whether it has been offenders opting to take part in drug rehabilitation programmes or even simple things like wanting to spend more time with their children and be better parents," she said.
Among those who agreed to take part is prolific burglar Craig Dibble.
This month, the 28-year-old was handed a custodial term of six years and eight months for a series of break-ins - one of which left an 11-year-old boy terrified.
In a letter read out in court, the convicted criminal told one of his victims: "I have never thought of meeting victims and it scares me, although when I have been sentenced and got my head around what I have done I would definitely meet as I would like to be able to answer your questions and apologise."
Mrs Hook said subsequent publicity about Dibble had caused two more of his victims to come forward and request a meeting.