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Is Saying Sorry Better than Prison?

To deal with young criminals, Northern Ireland has been experimenting with something they call the "Youth Conference." Instead of sending kids who commit assault, theft, or "motoring offences" to a prison, the government sends them to a meeting. There, the young troublemaker is asked to give an account of the offense, and the victim, who is usually present, is invited to ask questions and describe the effects of the crime. Then they decide, together, with the help of a professional coordinator, on a "plan" to make things right. This usually means doing unpaid restorative work and giving a face-to-face apology.You might think this lets wayward teens off easy if all they have to do is apologize and do a little manual labor. But a new report (.pdf) on the effectiveness of these Youth Conferences just came out and the results are remarkable:More than 5,500 meetings between victims and offenders have taken place in Northern Ireland since 2003.... Some 38% of 10 to 17 year olds participating in the scheme in Northern Ireland in 2006 re-offended within a year, compared to 71% of those given custodial terms. The percentage of those re-offending where restorative justice was used instead of a prosecution was 28%.In a report, the PRT said many victims were found to prefer the experience of participating in a restorative justice meeting to attending court.In Northern Ireland, this system has turned out to be better than prison in every way. It reduces recidivism, saves the public the expense of locking a kid up, and victims actually like it better. There's now talk of expanding the system to England and Wales.We should be adopting this approach in America-and expanding it to other kinds of crime as well. Our prison system is at a breaking point and revenge is overrated.

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