On the still vexed question of CRJ

Ciaran Barnes at Daily Ireland notes that “the Criminal Justice Inspectorate has known since the 2000 Criminal Justice Review that it might be called upon to provide independent inspection of community-based restorative-justice schemes”. However he also notes the SDLP’s implacable resistence to government funding, so long as minimum rather than maximum standards are required, not least when certain publicly cited questions remain over the actions (or rather inactions) of some of its personnel. Consultation closed on this in March, and the government has been tooing and froing to tighten them ever since. There is nothing in the public domain as yet, and as far as we know no one has been given any direct breifings on what the concrete outcomes might be.

Nevertheless, there are unofficial hints at some limited shifts in the British Government’s current thinking. It is understood for instance that the direct system used for complaints against probation officers is now be applied to CRJ. But there are other outstanding questions.

In a recent letter to Tony Blair, the SDLP leader Mark Durkan, quoted Sinn Fein’s Catriona Ruane in the Mourne Observer of 28th January 2004:

“Community Restorative Justice … is proving a minor success… In the coming months Sinn Fein plans to set up similar initiatives throughout South Down in order to offer a viable alternative to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.” [Emphasis added] Mourne Observer 28 January 2004.

This idea of CRJ as a politically sponsored alternative policing system has bedevilled the debate ever since.

In particular the SDLP argues that in the absence of Sinn Fein’s support for the police, there is no guarantee that CRJ schemes are not de facto answerable to wholly unaccountable paramilitary groups. In these circumstances, they argue, people will just be too scared to complain. Even the most stringent vetting systems will break down in communities too afraid to deal with the police.

Another point they raise is the plight of the exiled, kids mostly, who have effectively been kicked out of Northern Ireland in general. The latest government proposals leave their situation unresolved.

It is thought at the guidelines still only deal with criminal matters. Yet some restorative justice groups claim that 85% of their work is non-criminal. Further the SDLP claims that CRJ does not accept a ‘legitimate definition’ of what constitutes a crime. Neither do the proposed Government guidelines provide such a definition.

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