The Hampshire Community Court involves young volunteers who are trained to operate a ‘peer court’ to decide punishments for suitable young, first-time offenders who commit low-level crime. Teenager ELOISE PEABODY-ROLF is one of those devoting her time to making the project a success. Here she explains how the scheme works.
We know from government studies into the use of restorative justice, fewer crimes have been committed by those who have taken part in it.
The thinking of dealing with young people in this way is that if negative peer pressure was playing a part in getting young people into trouble, couldn’t positive peer pressure play a part in keeping them out?
That is the ethos behind young people being held to account in the community court by other young people, and as a young person I can genuinely say that the pressure from your peers tends to have more of an impact on how your behave than often the authority of an adult.
Our programme also enables victims to be more actively involved in the outcome and ensures offenders understand the impact of their actions on them.
During our training we learned what victims’ needs may be, so even if they do not want to attend we can still try to focus on them.
Although every victim will be different, what victims seek to obtain from a restorative process – and what we work to deliver – is truth telling, empowerment, answers to their questions, restitution and safety.
When the community court volunteers are called to staff a hearing, they are allocated a specific role. These are advocates, who are allocated to represent both the offender and the victim.
There is a peer panel, consisting of at least four people. A peer chairs the hearing, ensuring correct procedures are followed, and finally we have an usher who ensures all admin is correctly completed, for example confidentiality agreements by all involved.
First the community court advocates acting for the victim and the respondent will be given a short statement on the incident in question.
When they arrive, the respondent and victim are shown to separate rooms accompanied by their advocate. After an introduction to how the hearing will run and the advocate’s role, they will each be asked questions to give the advocate a better picture of what has happened, how the victim has been affected, the effects on others such as their families, and to clarify points in the account they have given. This is also the time for the victim or respondent to ask any questions and for the advocates to ease them into the hearing, making them feel comfortable and keeping them as calm as possible.
While the advocates are talking to the respondent or victim, the peer panel are discussing possible questions which could be asked to gain as much information as possible from both parties based on the brief outline they have been given.
When they are ready both parties are taken into the hearing room. The hearings can take place anywhere.
For the pilot we are currently using the conference room at Fareham police station since we take cases from Fareham and Gosport police officers.
The peer panel then enters the hearing room and the chair will introduce everyone and give a brief introduction. The advocates first present their opening statements to the peer panel. The panel then asks questions of the victim if they are present or their advocate so they can get both an understanding and get across the impact of the crime on them to the respondent.
The respondent is then held to account by their peers through questioning to establish their motivations for the crime, how they felt about it then and how they feel about it now and if they have or are willing to repair the harm they have caused.
The advocates will then give a closing statement before the peer panel leaves the hearing to confirm the best outcome for the case. The outcomes we work with are no further action, youth community resolutions and youth cautions.
More importantly the panel can decide on up to three directions to support these outcomes and base them on the information they have gained from the police, victim, and community if relevant and of course the respondent.
Once decided and confirmed by the peer panel the outcome is still then delivered by the police to comply with regulations but the major difference is that the outcome is no longer done in isolation.
All cases are followed up with a one-month peer review to understand progress and the effectiveness of the outcome.
So far our cases have included a 16 and a 17-year-old who were each caught in possession of cannabis, a 15-year-old who caused damage to the family home and was abusive towards her mother, a 13-year-old boy who committed a burglary by stealing from a school staff room and a 14-year-old boy who stole something from a lady’s handbag while she was swimming at a beach.
It is early days but overall I believe that our first few cases have been successful in at least the sense we as young people have been able to bring an awareness and understanding to other young people about restorative justice.
We’ve had some positive outcomes and feedback from those who took part, so have hopefully made a difference to both the victim and respondent.
Since the hearing we know one boy from Fareham who has gone from being in detention everyday to only being in detention a few times over a month.
One boy in Gosport, after we met him, stated he felt bad for what he did to his victim and had started to make more positive decisions in his life like changing his circle of friends and finding a Saturday job.
In my opinion this is a good way to give young offenders a second chance, enabling them to demonstrate they have learnt from their mistakes, rather than ending up with a criminal record with all the problems that brings with it.
Of course if someone does not comply then they may face more action in the future and all of our respondents leave with this message.
We work with the respondents to gain their trust, understanding and agreement but we are not a criminal court and so we do not give out court orders enforced by law.
Hampshire Community Court
HAMPSHIRE Community Court is the brainchild of PC Mark Walsh and is the first scheme of its kind in the country.
PC Walsh spent six weeks in the USA researching how peer courts work after being awarded funding from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to look at how such courts operate.
Earlier this year 16 volunteers aged between 14 and 24 who successfully trained to take part received awards for achievement from Hampshire police and crime commissioner Simon Hayes who is backing the project.
On the look out for volunteers
Hampshire Community Court is on the look-out for volunteers.