A groundbreaking scheme that forces petty criminals in Norfolk to meet their victims, apologise and make amends is prompting growing numbers to turn their back on crime, it was revealed last night.
Re-offending rates among the 1000-plus shoplifters, vandals and yobs who have been dealt with through restorative justice meetings are significantly lower than among those who face traditional justice like prison, fines or community service.
Last night, police said many offenders were changing their behaviour because they were chastened by meeting the real people who their crimes affected.
And they added that, rather than restorative justice being seen by vandals as a way to escape justice, many wrongdoers would prefer prison or a fine to the ordeal of facing their victims.
Of the 1,065 wrongdoers dealt with in the first 18 months of the project, 14pc have returned to crime after being forced to humble themselves in front of their victims. The figure falls to 8pc among juveniles.
Across the rest of the justice system in Norfolk, the re-offending rate is about 22pc.
The news came as the latest restorative justice meetings saw two young men from Cromer meeting their victims and apologising for criminal damage sprees.
Peter Merry, Norfolk Constabulary's head of criminal justice, said 27pc of the situations were dealt with through conferences, which included victims, police, the offender and representatives from the Crown Prosecution Service. The remaining 73pc were face-to-face meetings between the offender and the victim ?on the street?.
?Restorative justice gives people confidence in policing and makes them happier with the police's ability to deal with issues. But the biggest thing is the reduced re-offending rate.
?It's certainly not a soft option. We've spoken to a lot of offenders, and some have said they would rather go to prison than face their victim. It also involves repayment or work in the community.
?They have to face their demons and give something back.?
Mr Merry said the path was open for offenders of all ages, but would only be chosen for minor theft and shoplifting, minor criminal damage and minor anti-social behaviour.
Restorative justice gives victims the chance to tell offenders the real impact of their crime, to get answers to their questions and to receive an apology. It gives the offenders the chance to understand the real impact of what they have done and to do something to repair the harm.
It is designed to directly hold offenders to account and, following pilots in a number of areas, including Norfolk, is being rolled out countrywide. It is also being used outside the criminal justice system, for example in schools, workplaces, care homes and hospitals.
On Thursday a young man who vandalised and broke into 12 cars on Mill Road and Station Road on March 1 said sorry to 10 of his victims at a face-to-face meeting.
The man, who cannot be named, was confronted by the angry car owners at a restorative justice conference at North Norfolk District Council's headquarters on Holt Road.
Chief Insp Steve Jones said: ?He apologised to the group and said he is taking steps to deal with his problems. A couple of the victims shook his hand and thanked him for being honest.
?Some of the people he targeted were his friends and he didn't even realise, so he had to face up to the impact of his actions.?
On Tuesday, an 18-year-old man met with the pastor and members of the congregation of Cromer Baptist Church and agreed to pay for repairs to windows that he smashed on two occasions - and to carry out community work to make amends.
The church vandal twice targeted Cromer Baptist Church and twice attacked Cromer Methodist Church in recent months - smashing windows on each occasion.
Chief Insp Jones added: ?This is more challenging for those committing crime than going to court. The victims were sitting and staring at the offender. It takes a lot more courage to face that.?
There are concerns that restorative justice is secret justice, with the media denied access to the hearings and unable to identify the offenders.
But a Norfolk police spokesman defended the system, saying the hearings were confidential because ?we need all parties to be willing to take part?.