ASPIRE marking its 5th year as part of Restorative Justice Week 2021

To mark International Restorative Justice Week, NIACRO has produced this article to focus on the ASPIRE programme and the restorative approaches taken in its partnership with NI Alternatives and Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI).

During Restorative Justice Week 2021 we wanted to highlight our partnership working and the use of these progressive restorative approaches to address the harm caused by crime or conflict. These approaches encourage people to accept responsibility for their choices and actions and encourages them to reflect on how they interact with each other and move on positively.

In partnership with the Probation Board for NI, NI Alternatives and CRJI, the ASPIRE programme works with marginalised young men (aged 16-30), who are at risk of becoming involved, or further involved, in criminality and paramilitary activity. We offer intensive mentoring support based on assessed need, but often concerned with:

  • accessing healthcare
  • stabilising accommodation
  • supporting family and community relationships; and accessing addiction services

Service users often live incredibly chaotic lives and are not always ready for the challenge that restorative practice presents. For those who are willing and able, the partnerships within the ASPIRE programme offers a  path into the world of restorative practices, while continuing to offer practical and emotional support.

Beverly, from NI Alternatives in South Belfast, said the young men who use the service have often been traumatised in childhood which has led to their involvement in crime.

 “The ASPIRE programme is about getting to know our clients and what’s going on in their lives and what led them to committing the crimes they did. The process can be very emotional because you’re asking clients to let you into their lives to help and support them.

“If we can take away some of those factors and encourage our clients to reflect on what they did and the harm they caused themselves that may prevent them going back into the criminal justice system or getting involved in crime in the first place.

“Sometimes, it can feel intrusive asking our service users about the things they have done. But it is also a huge privilege because they are letting you into their lives and when you see a change, even if it is a small change, it can be amazing,” she said.

ASPIRE works with clients by providing a range of practical supports.  It is during this process that the mentor and service user establish a relationship that allows for the introduction of restorative ideas.

NIACRO mentor Hannah explained that it can be difficult to get a service user to consider restorative work because it is a challenging process but when it does happen it can be very rewarding.

She said: “Not all of our clients are ready for restorative practice because their personal circumstances are quite chaotic.

“A large part of our role is to help stabilise their lives and prevent them from falling back into criminality or paramilitary influence.

“However, when we do get a client that is ready to engage with restorative work, it can be very rewarding for everyone involved – but the client must feel they are ready.”

One such client is Philip, who began working with Hannah after he was released from custody.

He broke his back when he was younger and said he spent years coming to terms with his injuries. This struggle led to depression and drug use which he kept secret from his family.

He explained: “The damage to my spine made it impossible for me to hold down a job and I struggled with my mental health. It wasn’t long before I developed an addiction to drugs and then I began to feel suicidal.”

Philip said his began to get into debt because of his drug addiction and this caused him to borrow money. He said because of his spiralling debt he felt forced into making decisions that ultimately led to him being charged with drugs offences.

He added: “When I was charged, I felt so much shame and I thought I had ruined my life. But when I was released from custody, I got in touch with NIACRO and they helped me with my finances and with my mental health.

“Hannah, my Aspire mentor, was very supportive and great at her job.”

Philip was then referred on through to the Aspire Restorative programme at NI Alternatives.

Stuart, who works in Alternatives in East Belfast, explains the process.

He said: “The great thing about working with NIACRO is that they were able to support Philip with his finances, which was a huge weight off his shoulders and went a long way in allowing him to accept an offer from us to do restorative work.

“When he was then referred to me, we were able to analyse the offence and the harm that it had caused him and his family.

“We were then able to do some mediation with a surrogate victim of crime which Philip said made him very nervous but was a powerful experience.”

Aspire mentor, Orla, spoke about the work she is doing with one of her clients. Based in CRJI’s West Belfast office she said that her client Sean has engaged well with the restorative process and has started to make positive changes in his life.

“Sean had been getting into trouble around some of the local interfaces. He was rioting and getting involved in organised sectarian fights.

“We started to use some restorative exercises with Sean to help divert him away from his risk-taking behaviour. He has responded well to our programme which has also involved identifying training and employment opportunities.

“He has gone on to secure employment opportunities with a local company which employs staff on ferries, wind farms and cruise ships.”

Sean says of the Aspire Programme that it has helped structure his life by providing training and support.

He added: “My mum referred me to Aspire a couple of months ago and since then I haven’t been in any trouble. I am looking forward to getting my first job and I would recommend the Aspire project because it has introduced me to new opportunities that I never thought about before.”

The Aspire Programme is now in its fifth year, providing practical interventions in partnership with PBNI and providing restorative approaches in collaboration with our partners in NI Alternatives and CRJI.

If you would like further information, then please get in touch with ASPIRE by calling NIACRO on 02890320157.  Alternatively, if you are on Probation, you can ask your Probation Officer about ASPIRE.