Since the onset of discussions concerning the adoption of the restorative justice philosophy in Trinidad and Tobago, there has been an unhealthy focus on offenders. This arose due to the introduction of the term in the 2002 Penal Reform Task Force Report wherein restorative justice was intended to underpin the transformation of the prison service.

Consequently, most references to restorative justice in the public domain emanated from the Prisons Service and the Ministry of National Security which oversaw the Prisons Service. This was echoed by numerous civil society organisations which run programmes in the prisons and, over time, the term “restorative justice” became a buzzword for those hoping to engage in prison ministry or seeking to reduce the rate of re-offending by offenders.

Over the years, our organization, Caribbean Umbrella Body for Restorative Behaviour (CURB) has been trumpeting the call for “balanced” or “true” restorative justice which holds to the tenets of the pioneers of this philosophy. Through our website, online newsletter and in various fora we sought to educate the Prisons Service, civil society working in the prisons and the national community that true restorative justice is victim centred.

While it was heartening to hear that the Ministry of Justice was hosting a Restorative Justice Conference to further its intention to develop a restorative justice policy for the country, we anticipated that the ancient issues of misinformation about restorative justice would need to be overcome. The agenda of the conference proved to support that concern as most of the local speakers and panellists represented various arms of the traditional criminal justice system and focused on the prosecution, needs, rights and or rehabilitation of offenders. In contrast, only one (1) speaker on the roster was a victim of crime and represented the voice of victims.

As anticipated, on the first day of the conference, many of the local speakers harped on or queried the effectiveness of restorative justice to address the backlog of criminal cases in the judicial system and to reduce the alarmingly high rate of crime in the nation. It seemed that, for them – notwithstanding any formal definition of restorative justice they may have read at the commencement of their presentations – the delivery of restorative justice was centred on the need to transform offenders.

Alarmingly, examples of “restorative justice” initiatives were sought to be given by key officials and, while noble and valuable in impacting offenders or seeking to reform the criminal justice system via reducing bureaucracy, we were concerned that the touted initiatives were not more accurately described as being barely or partly restorative at best.

We were extremely encouraged to listen to the presentations of the speakers who shared the Jamaican and British experiences of introducing restorative justice policy to and developing restorative justice practice in their respective nations. Both speakers emphasised the elements of (a) victim satisfaction with restorative justice initiatives and (b) increased victim referrals of cases to restorative justice agencies, as key features of their national programmes. Moreover, both indicated that the national and cross-political party support which their respective programmes received were due, in no small part, to the fact that restorative justice initiatives were marketed as being of benefit to victims and their families.

In the United Kingdom we were told that the government has voted for more funding for restorative justice in light of research findings that 85 percent of victims who participate in such initiatives report satisfaction with the process. Research also illustrated a collateral benefit to society in terms of a reduction by between 14 to 27 percent (approx.) in rates of re-offending by offenders who participated in the initiatives.

The use of restorative justice in Jamaica was stated as being more widespread than within the criminal justice system as persons are able to access restorative justice services in their communities and in school settings. As a consequence of the benefits they received from the process and their scepticism towards local law enforcement and the convoluted court process, increasing numbers of Jamaicans were relying on these services rather than report crimes to the police and engage with the criminal justice system at all. Below is a diagram of how restorative justice is applied in Jamaica.

RJ plan for Jamaica

While these salient points from international speakers experienced in restorative justice policy and practice were made on the first day of the Restorative Justice Conference, they seemed to have been missed by many delegates, the majority of whom work in the traditional criminal justice system or in various aspects of offender rehabilitation. Moreover, the challenges of keeping earlier conference presenters on schedule meant that the sole speaker on the conference agenda who would represent “the voice of victims” was unable to contribute to discussions on the first day.

At the conclusion of Day 1 of the Restorative Justice Conference, it was apparent that one of the challenges in moving forward to the development of restorative justice policy was the lack of agreement as to the true definition and nature of restorative justice and the need to balance focus on all stakeholders – victims, offenders and the community (of which the State is a part).