Restorative Justice for Teenage Crimes

Restorative Justice for Teenage Crimes

Restorative justice is a kind of justice which requires the doer of a criminal act to compensate the victim and restore the previous state of affairs. This is achieved by facilitating a face-to-face meeting between the victim and the offender during which the offender accepts his or her crime and undertakes to make amends in the presence of community representatives. If an agreement is reached, it will be reduced to writing and enforced like any other legally binding agreement. Restorative justice seeks to avoid the cumbersome trial process, which more often than not yields no positive results for either side. However, unlike alternative dispute resolution (ADR), restorative justice does not aim at a win-win solution for both parties, instead it obliges the offender to remedy the wrong as a precondition for avoiding regular court trial.

The movement for restorative justice picked up in the United States in the 21st century to address a particular kind of criminality including crimes committed by teenagers out of fun, such as graffiti crimes, drug and alcohol abuse, shoplifting, street fighting, breaking into houses and trespassing. With this type of criminality, keeping offenders behind bars was questioned as it was neither likely to reform the offenders nor compensate the victims. Similarly, in Pakistan, teenagers get booked for criminal activities of a petty nature as a matter of routine, where none of the parties ends up achieving anything out of a regular court trial, apart from pain, suffering and financial hardship. If these crimes are addressed through restorative justice instead, not only can the victim be compensated but the offender also stands a better chance to reform himself or herself.

The restorative justice system was invented as a supplement to traditional theories of punishment according to which the purpose of punishment was to either make an example out of the offenders or to disable them from repeating their crimes. Understandably, punishments such as these are suitable for a specific type of criminality, for example violent crimes. There is now consensus amongst jurists that no single theory of punishment holds true in all situations. Therefore, new approaches need to be evolved to deal with different types of criminality. It seems cruel and inhuman to bring to court handcuffed teenagers in suffocating prison vans, charged with petty crimes such as cattle theft and shoplifting. Such crimes should instead be dealt with at Union Council level where the offenders can be compelled to make amends under community pressure and undertake not to repeat their crime or face civil suit for damages.

In the event of such crimes taking place, the victims should ask themselves what they would gain by pressing charges against the suspect. As it happens, the behaviour of the offenders remains unsupervised once they are released on bail or when their period of confinement comes to an end. Wouldn’t they be negatively impacted by being associated with hardened criminals and wouldn’t they develop a grudge against the complainants who made them go through the agony of trial and imprisonment? Conversely, if teenagers are required to compensate the victims or address their grievances, wouldn’t they be more grateful to the victims who saved them from the pain and agony of court trial and punishment? Furthermore, wouldn’t they be mindful that by entering into a written agreement they would have confessed to their crime and failing to honour the agreement would attract a civil suit as well as social disapproval? Hence, with regard to criminal offences of a minor type involving teenage suspects, a better option appears to be recourse to restorative justice rather than regular trial.

Restorative justice was introduced in the United States to deal with drug and alcohol abuse by students in order to avoid more formal and punitive sanctions such as expulsion, arrest and incarceration. The program connected students with local community members so they could gain a better understanding of the harm that their drug and alcohol abuse had done to the community.

The same approach has been used in graffiti crime cases as well. In Jackson County, Oregon, the Restorative Works organizational website highlighted three boys who were involved in ”tagging” local area property. All three boys were given the opportunity to meet with affected community members, accept responsibility for their crime, listen to the concerns of community members, and apologize. In this case, the three boys wrote public letters of apology that were printed in the local paper. The essence of the system is that the offenders must take responsibility for their actions and be genuinely sorry for what they have done. Moreover, restorative justice does not involve a trial, lawyers, judges, or pleas of guilt or innocence, rather the offenders are made to confess to their crimes and apologize publicly as a precondition to spare court trial. The suspects also have to compensate the victims by repairing the damage done. Since the agreements are facilitated by residents of the locality, they are invariably implemented under fear of ostracization and/or suit for damages.

Time and again it has been stressed by human rights groups and civil society organizations that Pakistani prisons are dangerously overcrowded and children are routinely kept with adults because separate prison facilities are almost non-existent. Even though many of these teenagers are released on bail, they know very little about the case that stands registered against them, requiring them to appear on each date of hearing else being declared absconders. Additionally, it becomes difficult for teenagers to integrate into society once they are out of prison due to the stigma attached to having been to jail.

From this perspective, it is even more important for countries like Pakistan to resort to the restorative justice system. This innovative technique of justice, besides avoiding complex trial process, aims at compensating the victim. In fact, compensation is a prerequisite for giving effect to the system. The implementation of agreements can be ensured through the involvement of community members, while the option of civil suits for the recovery of damages is always open to the victim as well.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Dr Usman Hameed

Author: Dr Usman Hameed

The writer holds a Ph.D in Law from the University of Glasgow. He is an Advocate of the High Court and serves as the Director of School of Law & Policy at UMT.