Does Forum Sentencing Really Work?

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As of July 25, new changes to forum sentencing have been implemented all around NSW.

These changes aim to make forum sentencing more effective.

Forum sentencing is an alternative way of dealing with adult offenders aged between 18 and 24.

It aims to get the defendant to learn about the impact of their behaviour on the victim and the community as well as helping the victim recover.

A forum brings together the defendant, the victim and often a police officer and support people. It takes the form of a discussion about the offence and the harm suffered.

However, studies by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOSCAR) as early as 2009 have not given positive results regarding the effectiveness of forum sentencing in reducing further crime.

Another study last year found that forum sentencing did not reduce the risk of reoffending.

These disappointing reports have led some to wonder whether it is time to bother with forum sentencing at all.

However, such a view might be premature and narrow-minded.

There are strong reasons to suggest that forum sentencing does have many advantages, both for the defendant and the victim.

Victims of crimes have reported positive experiences with the programs.

The BOSCAR report found that there was no significant difference between recidivism of those who spent time in jail and those who instead participated in forum sentencing.

But perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at it.

Said another way, forum sentencing works just as well as jail time; while not more effective, forum sentencing is no less effective.

The study found that five per cent of those who participated in the circle sentencing program committed another offence within 6 months, whereas this figure was seven per cent for those who had been sentenced to jail.

Keeping people out of jail means that people are less-likely to learn criminal skills from others, or to lose their employment and social links or to become stigmatised and alienated. On the other hand, those who spend considerable time in jail may re-enter society without work or social links, and with a ‘jailhouse education’ in how to commit crimes.

Since jail costs for the community are already swelling, keeping people out of prison is not a bad idea economically speaking either.

Did you know that taxpayers fork out up to $824 a day per inmate?

While there will always be an element of those who will keep committing crimes regardless of any forum or incarceration, for most the chance to avoid prison may allow them to escape the cycle of crime, especially is the forum devises a program aimed at addressing the underlying causes of a participant’s criminality.

The BOSCAR study may also be seen as problematic because the sample group was made up of those who already had patterns of reoffending.

It therefore does not give a clear indication of the effect of forum sentencing upon first offenders.

It is to be hoped that proposed changes will improve the effectiveness of the program overall.

The changes include:

  • A broadening of access to the program to include not only cases where the accused faced the possibility of jail, but also if it is likely that a conviction will be recorded and a good behaviour bond or community service order issued;
  • Victims will have more power and more emphasis will be placed on their perspective – forum sentencing will only be available if the victim wants to participate
  • Centralisation of the program and administrative changes

Restorative justice programs aim not merely to focus on punishing the defendant, but on healing the victim.

The BOSCAR analysis pointed out one reason why forum sentencing has not been as successful as it could be.

Many restorative justice measures fail to deal with root problems which are behind many crimes such as drug and alcohol abuse or unemployment.

Let’s hope with the proposed changes to forum sentencing will result in successful outcomes both for victims and defendants.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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