Eighteen months ago I responded to an article calling for volunteers to
participate in Loveland, Colorado’s Restorative Justice Program. As a trained
mediator, I had some idea of what to expect from this program. As a
practicing Restorative Justice Family Conferencing Facilitator, I learned how
some perceptions of Restorative Justice were skewed. More importantly, I
learned about the value and need for a program like this in our community,
and how it positively impacts victims, offenders and facilitators alike.
Restorative Justice programs are based on the capability of trained
facilitators to help bring about a real sense of justice for those most
affected by the harm: victims, victimized communities and the offenders
themselves. This is accomplished by asking who was harmed, how the wrongdoing
can be corrected and who is to be held accountable. In other words, it is
about giving victims (and to a lesser degree, offenders) voices and choices
in repairing the harm.
The issue of accountability is addressed simply in Loveland’s program.
Essentially, the offender participates in the Restorative Justice process
voluntarily, but must admit guilt before facilitators proceed with a case.
The first goal is avoid re-victimizing the victim, the second is to give the
victim a sense of empowerment, and the third is provide the offender with an
opportunity to make amends for his/her actions. Once the groundwork has been
done, the facilitator will meet individually with victims and the members of
their support system, as well as offenders and their support systems. If all
parties agree to participate, a conference is called where every person is
allowed to discuss his or her feelings and how the crime impacted each
whether financially, physically or emotionally.
Victims are encouraged to express their anger, ask questions of the offender
and participate in the consequence decision making process. In other words,
Restorative Justice allows victims a voice that has no place in the
traditional court system. More often than not, the victim will ask the
offender, “Why did you do this to me?” Perhaps the most important aspect of a
facilitated conference for the victim is a sense of empowerment when given
the opportunity to meet the offender face-to-face in a safe and neutral
environment. Offenders are given the opportunity to explain motives they
don’t often understand themselves. Most often they are able to develop a new
understanding of accountability thereby allowing them to sincerely apologize
for their actions. The lessons learned in the “circle of dialogue” are taken
to heart and give real weight to the words, “I’m sorry.”
The neutral facilitator notifies all participants that the task at hand is to
come to a peaceful and reasonable resolution to repair the harm done by the
offender. Since the offender has already admitted guilt there is no need to
point fingers or fuel emotions by laying blame. This is not a cakewalk for
the offender. Facing the person(s) injured by his or her actions is a
difficult task . This is especially true when the offender is forced to see
firsthand how deeply a victim has been impacted. Upon learning that a stolen
necklace or trinket cane from a deceased relative the offender suddenly
realizes he/she has taken something more valuable than just a piece of
jewelry. Breaking and entering is no longer viewed as harmless when
confronted with the emotional impact revealed by victims as they struggle
with a sense of invasion, lost security and vulnerability. Vandalism is no
longer viewed as fun when the offender sees the tears and hears the pain of
victims who articulate emotional attachments, fear or financial upheaval.
As facilitators, it is not always easy to sit through a conference crowded
with feelings of remorse, anger, sense of loss or fear. But, when a group
comes together and that transition from adversarial positions to cooperation
and understanding takes place, the benefits of Restorative Justice are
tangible, not only in terms of an agreed upon contract for restitution, but
in the group’s collective sigh of relief.
As a facilitator I have been privileged to see successful outcomes to what
otherwise might have been the beginnings of an offender making all the wrong
turns on the road of life. As a facilitator, it has been my privilege to
witness the courage of victims willing to face those who harmed them with
dignity and a sense of idealism that allows for second chances. In my view
this is justice in the truest sense of the word.
Almost ten years ago, we did a workshop showing film clips from popular films we thought were relevant to negotiation and conflict management practice. Since then, each of us have...By Peter Adler, Robert Benjamin