Forum unites victims and offenders
A NEW program that brings victims of crime and offenders together in a group meeting has been launched in Grafton with an ambitious aim - to repair the harm of crime and reduce reoffending.
Forum sentencing was first trialled in Liverpool and Tweed Heads in 2005 and the Mid North Coast is the 10th region to adopt the program in NSW.
Program administrator Michelle Hermann, who works out of the Coffs Harbour office of the Attorney-General, said she was excited about the potential of the program.
"It's most appropriate where there is a direct victim," Ms Hermann said. "We do high-range PCA, stealing, receiving, break and enter - anything that can be dealt with in the local court.
"Obviously, offences of a sexual nature are not appropriate."
Ms Hermann said while "victim satisfaction rates" had proven quite good in the program's evaluations, there was not any data available to indicate if it had curbed re-offending.
She said research was being conducted by a Sydney university to this end.
Ms Hermman, who worked as a solicitor in youth justice in Queensland before starting the program in June, said it was preferred that offenders pleaded guilty and were likely to face a term of imprisonment to be suitable for the program.
"Part of the suitability is that they take responsibility for the offence," she said.
A facilitator will co-ordinate a forum sentencing meeting with not only the offender and victim but their support people, police and perhaps other community members that were affected by the crime.
"At the forum a plan is developed - a list of things the offender is going to do," Ms Hermann said. "It might be repaying some money, it might be doing some volunteer work or maybe attending some counselling - but it really depends on who the participants were.
"That plan comes back to the court on the sentencing day - the magistrate can choose whether to adopt it or not and if they do it's attached to a bond - it's component of a good behaviour bond."
Having attended sentencing forums recently on top of her experience with "youth justice conferencing", Ms Hermann said she was confident forum sentencing would have a positive impact on the justice system.
"I worked for many years in the public service in the traditional adversarial justice system, " she said. "I'm quite passionate about restorative justice processes.
"In terms of people coming before the court - they're standing before an anonymous magistrate, the victim's nowhere in site so I think it (forum sentencing) is quite a confronting process for both the offender and victim.
"I think it definitely does have an impact on offenders hearing from not only the victim and people close to the victim on how they've been affected but also to hear from their own family and friends who may come along to the forum - to hear how they've been affected by the offending as well.
Another example of restorative justice, where victims have the chance to voice the impact the crime had on them directly to the offender, is circle sentencing which is used among Aboriginal offenders in parts of NSW.
Ms Hermann said Grafton and Maclean's regular local court magistrate David Heilpern, who is on extended leave, was very supportive of forum sentencing.