New laws may lead to court delays

New laws which force criminals and their victims to consider meeting each other could see workloads increase seven-fold for some restorative justice providers, possibly slowing down court proceedings.

The changes have also come under fire from victims of crime, with a Horowhenua couple, whose son was killed, saying referrals should remain voluntary.

Changes to how restorative justice is handled came into effect this week as part of an amendment to the Sentencing Act.

Restorative justice is a process where offenders meet victims to talk about the harm caused by crimes, before offenders are sentenced.

Restorative justice referrals were a voluntary process, with offenders having to ask for the process to be considered, and meetings only took place if both parties agreed.

Now, any defendant who pleads guilty to a crime which has a victim will automatically be referred to restorative justice.

Victims and offenders can still decline to take part.

Restorative Justice Aotearoa general manager Mike Hinton said the impact would vary from region to region.

Some providers may see little change, but others' workloads could increase "five, six, or seven-fold", he said.

More funding had been made available for the extra work, but more staff would be needed to meet demand in some areas, he said.

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Hinton said he was unsure if the change would see court cases drag on longer, but it was something he would watch for.

Restorative justice should be seen as a positive step for victims, as it was one of the few chances they and their loved ones had to be involved in the legal process, he said.

It also gave offenders insight into their actions.

"The victim is usually just a name.

"[Offenders] then have to see them and feel their hurt."

Hinton said making restorative justice an opt-out programme was good, as people could have fallen through the cracks before.

But Horowhenua couple John and Lynda Timmer-Arends have a different view.

Linda Timmer-Arends' son, Michael Valentine, died after being stabbed on February 1 last year.

Stoyan Militch, Brayden Windley and Michael Paul Zimmerman were initially charged with murder in relation to Valentine's death, but pleaded guilty during their trial to manslaughter.

Zimmerman, who went on to lose an appeal against his seven-year jail sentence, offered to take part in restorative justice with Valentine's family. That offer was rejected.

John Timmer-Arends said restorative justice was good in some situations, and could have a positive effect.

But having compulsory referrals for serious crimes before sentencing - a time when emotions were still raw - was not ideal.

"They should not be going to restorative justice because the judge says so," he said. "It needs to come from the offender as a genuine attempt to try and change."

Linda Timmer-Arends said compulsory referrals should not apply for the most serious crimes - something the Sensible Sentencing Trust agreed with.

Spokeswoman Leigh Woodman said if cases took longer to be resolved, victims would come under more stress.

 - Manawatu Standard

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