Last week I met (by video call) several victims of crime, some direct victims and others indirect.
The direct victims included someone who had been burgled and someone who had been abused within the family since the age of 12. The indirect victim was someone whose brother had been murdered. But whether direct or indirect, all had suffered and all had been helped by what is known as Restorative Justice (RJ). As one put it: “I have got my life back again.”
All these stories were told to me in short fifteen minute interviews as part of a week of activity raising awareness about Restorative Justice. RJ is an offer to put victims and perpetrators of crime in touch with one another with a view to enabling both to move on in their lives. Victims can ask the sort of questions that often burden people in the aftermath of crime – “Why did you pick on me?” – and offenders can get a sense of the full impact their crime has had on the victim, possibly enabling them to change their offending behaviour. In South Yorkshire I commission the organisation REMEDI to run the RJ service for us.
The woman whose brother had been murdered had come forward to ask for RJ 24 years after the murder. She wanted to confront her brother’s killer directly.
She was a deeply thoughtful person. I asked her why it had taken so long for her to want this. She said it would have been impossible to do this before because she had been close to her brother and remained so very angry for so long. She would have got nothing from any earlier encounter because her rage would have got in the way.
But now, she was ready. She met the offender in the prison where he is serving his long sentence. For two hours she was able to ask all the questions that had been troubling her for so long – Why my brother? Why so brutal? And in turn he was left in no doubt about the impact this had had on her life down the years.
‘Did it help you?’ I asked. Again, she was so thoughtful. Yes, she had her questions answered up to a point, though she knew full well that he might be lying: he would likely have an eye to parole hearings. But the main thing was that the shadow that had sat on her shoulder all those years and had always been present when she thought about her brother, had lifted, and meeting the murderer as he now is – ‘older and balder’ – made her realise he had no control over any part of her life any more.
A glimmer of light in an often cheerless landscape
A second set of interviews was with a prolific burglar and then one of his victims in Rotherham District.
The burglar had been involved in criminality since he was a boy. He had been in and out of prison countless times. But one day he realised that unless he did something radical the rest of his life would be a repetition of what had gone before. He described his life as ‘a dark world’ in which he was ‘lost in drugs’.
His probation officer put him in touch with REMEDI and through them he met one of his victims who agreed to meet him and whom, he said, “saved my life”.
She also told me her story. She was a deeply thoughtful and compassionate person who was willing to listen to what the man who burgled her house had to say about his crime against her. In turn, she told him what the burglary had done to her – and the effect on her of losing items of small monetary value but considerable sentimental value, such as the loss of photographs of her late mother. He had been deeply moved by this. “I broke up,” he said.
I was very impressed and moved by the victim. Remarkably, she took the view that if she could help turn this person’s life around, even though he had caused her grief, she should do it. Thinking about his life and hers, she said, “I’ve been lucky in life.” She ended by quoting Vivian Greene: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It is about learning to dance in the rain.”
People sometimes say to me that PCCs should spend every penny on policing. Most pennies are, of course. But the PCC role is about ‘Crime’ as well as ‘Police’ and that includes the victims of crime. Restorative Justice is not an alternative to the criminal justice system. Criminals have to serve their sentences. But RJ offers a way of bringing some satisfaction or healing to the lives of those who have been distressed by criminal acts perpetrated against them. It can also lead to some criminals turning their lives around – and that ultimately will save public money.
All in all, I met some extraordinary ordinary people last week.
The Spending Review will be announced this week by the Chancellor. This is when in normal times he sets the financial envelope for all government departments over the next three years. In turn this enables us to plan the police budget over the same time scale – the medium term. But this year, because of the pandemic, it will only be for one year and that makes longer term planning almost impossible.
It is clear that a sense of post-coronavirus reality is starting to set in – a realisation that sooner or later all the debts that are being run up will have to be paid for, either with tax rises or cuts to public services, or both – ‘austerity’, though there will be a reluctance to call it that. This makes me anxious because while NHS spending will be protected and Defence expanded, local authorities and the police may not. He will find money for extra officers – that was a manifesto pledge – but unless there is money to support them once in post that means that money will have to be found from elsewhere. That means either cuts from somewhere else within the police budget or sizeable increases in council tax (or both) – but the tax base has been hammered and people’s ability to pay more in council tax in South Yorkshire is hardly going to be great.
The tough financial times are about to resume.
I hope you are staying safe and well.