In an article written by Andrew Price, “Saying sorry better than Prison,” he writes that a new way to deal with young offenders has been started in Northern Ireland. They have been experimenting with something they call the “Youth Conference.” Instead of sending kids who commit assault, theft, or “motoring offences” to a juvenile prison, the government sends them to a meeting where the young troublemaker is asked to give an account of the offense, and the victim, who is usually present, is invited to ask questions and describe the effects of the crime. Then together, they decide with the help of a professional coordinator, on a “plan” to make things right. This usually means unpaid restitution work and giving a face-to-face apology.
You might think this lets wayward teens off easy if all they have to do is apologize and do some unpaid manual labor. But reports on the Youth Conferences shows they have remarkable results:
“More than 5,500 meetings between victims and offenders have taken place in Northern Ireland since 2003…. Some 38% of 10 to 17 year olds participating in the scheme in Northern Ireland in 2006 re-offended within a year, compared to 71% of those given custodial terms. The percentage of those re-offending where restorative justice was used instead of a prosecution was 28%.”
In Northern Ireland, this system has turned out to be better than prison in every way. It reduces recidivism, saves the public the expense of locking a kid up and has a chance of really helping a juvenile to change.
Maybe we should start adopting this approach with juveniles. The adult prisons system and the jails are full. The legislature has tried to solve this problem by just letting inmates out early and then, as a way of cutting costs, to not supervise them when they are released. This is not working. The prisons have become a revolving door. Short sentences followed by early release with no supervision. It is nonsense. We need jails and prisons, but we ought to reserve them to protect us from dangerous and violent criminals.
Our current system is not effective with juveniles. Juvenile hall beds cost about $100.00 per day. The recidivism rate is very high. If we can be more effective with juveniles, it would provide a way to ease some of the pressure on the adult prison system. It would allow us keep violent offenders in longer, supervise them upon release, and also do the right thing for a lot of the juveniles who commit minor crimes.