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Fears raised over new CRJ proposals

(Bimpe Fatogun, Irish News)

New "strengthened" proposals for community-based restorative justice schemes may still create a two-tier system of policing, the SDLP has claimed.

NIO minister David Hanson put the new protocols out to consulation yesterday after admitting the original draft guidelines were "not robust enough".

Previously such schemes have been funded privately in republican and loyalist neighbourhoods.

Their aim is to bring victims of low-level crime and the perpertrators together to agree an appropriate penalty.

Sinn Féin has been among the supporters of such schemes, arguing they provide an alternative to paramilitary expulsions and punishment attacks in areas where there is hostility to the police.

However, critics fear loyalist and republican paramilitaries could use the schemes to exert further control over their areas.

Mr Hanson said he believes the government has got it right with the new proposals.

"I believe these new measures will substantively address the principle concerns raised with me about the operation of schemes," he said.

Among the changes is the requirement for schemes to "engage directly with the PSNI on all matters governed by the protocol".

Previously there has been a provision for this to be done through a third party.

A new panel will also be established to vet applicants seeking to deal with victims and offenders.

People taking part in schemes will also have access to a new independent complaints service.

"I firmly believe these strengthened measures now set a 'gold standard' for schemes to achieve and will promote further public confidence in the process," the minister said.

Mr Attwood, however, questioned the true extent of the changes.

"First, there is to be a complaints scheme run by the Probation Board," he said.

"It will not have the necessary powers for a truly independent and rigorous complaints procedure.

"Without the ability to search premises, seize documents and compel witnesses to attend, a complaint may quickly run into the sand."

Alliance Party justice spokesman Stephen Farry said the latest proposals do represent "a step forward", although he also recognised areas of concern.

"The protocol only addresses any scheme's potential involvement with criminal offences. Projects will be able to involve themselves in other areas of anti-social behaviour without any accountability," he said.

September 22, 2006

This article appeared first in the September 21, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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