Youth reoffending levels dropped dramatically when alternatives to prison were used in Northern Ireland, MPs have been told.
Two-thirds of those released from custody committed further offences within a year, compared with under a third receiving a form of restorative justice sanction known as youth conferencing, Youth Justice Agency (YJA) figures showed.
Northern Ireland has a well-developed system of restorative justice where the offender admits his guilt and meets the victim to discuss its impact.
An influential committee of MPs took evidence on the scheme from the YJA at Stormont. Agency chief executive Paula Jack said: "I don't think it is seen as the soft option."
A young person can be referred by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) or the court to the YJA for a youth conference. According to the agency, the conference is a meeting which gives the offender the chance to tell the participants at the meeting why he committed the offence and, subsequently, allows the victim to tell them how they have been affected by the crime.
It enables the young person to face the consequences of the crime and make amends for the harm caused. It is also an opportunity for the young person to be listened to and to participate in decision-making over important issues in their lives.
The conference is based on all participants talking and reaching agreement on a plan to meet the needs of the victim and stop the young person reoffending. The agency analysed youth reoffending in Northern Ireland within a year for those given a diversionary youth conference plan, a non-custodial court order or discharged from custody in 2008.
The overall 2008 reoffending rate was 37.4% when out-of-court sanctions, cautions and warnings were taken into account. The 2008 one-year reoffending rate for all youths discharged from custody was 68.3%. Those cases solely involving diversionary youth conference plans had a one-year reoffending rate of 29.4%.
Mary Brannigan, director at the agency, said: "It is a hearts and minds issue, for us it is about getting the message across to the public that it is very difficult for a young person to sit in the room with a person they have harmed and listen to their story, so it is not the soft option."
The agency gave evidence to Westminster's Justice Committee which is looking at youth justice in Great Britain.