Virginia's Judicial System

Restorative Justice Initiatives: A New Program Is Born

"I want you boys to understand that what you did went beyond the actual cost of repairing the damage . . ." and Mr. Gruber explained how much time he, his staff, and others had worked (and would work) resulting from the vandalism. He got answers to questions about how their "joy ride" got started and why they continued. He talked of the impact the act of wrongdoing had on his business and his trust of the community. At the end of the Victim Offender Conference, after the boys and those gathered decided what would be done, Mr. Gruber offered hope out of his disappointment that the boys could return to good standing. The opportunity for those affected by this crime to meet together is a result of a new program in Harrisonburg entitled Restorative Justice Initiatives (RJI).

Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs (VORP) and Victim Offender Mediation (VOM) are not new services - having been started in the latter 1970's to deal with situations of crime. In fact, the Community Mediation Center in Harrisonburg offered VOM in the early 1980's before focusing more on civil disputes. Other areas of the state have also provided VORP, VOM, and more recently Victim Offender Conferencing (VOC) and Family Group Conferences (FGC). These mediation services fall under the concept of Restorative Justice with the focus on the following:

  • The harm done rather than on the rule/law that was broken,
  • The need for ownership of the process/outcome by those directly impacted by the wrongdoing,
  • Accountability, and
  • Healing.

The unique quality of RJI is how the program became a reality. Nathan Barge and Tim Ruebke, two M.A. students in Eastern Mennonite University's Conflict Transformation Program, joined forces at the beginning of 1999 to conduct a "Listening Project." Similar to action research and ideas of appropriate technology, listening" implies openness and broad consultation. Listening assumes a completely different approach to development from the tradition of telling people what they need and transferring knowledge and technology (in this case VORP, VOM, or VOC). The key factors to listening are:

  • Engage those who will be directly affected by the proposed changes,
  • Seek to understand their roles and perspectives,
  • Gather their responses to the vision, and
  • If anything is to happen, make decisions jointly.

    A pool of individuals were identified from four areas within the community to consult: (1) community mediation/conflict resolution programs, (2) criminal justice system, (3) agencies whose programs serve victims and offenders, and (4) the community at large (victims & offenders; political, business, civic, school, and church leaders; and cultural groups). The goal is always to increase participation in community; to encourage reflection, discussion, and understanding of specific issues; to build relationships and resource linkages; and, to create a sense of empowerment that leads to constructive action. While a front end time-intensive process for development, listening builds the broad-based support needed for referrals, funding, and public acceptance.

    As testament to the efforts of RJI's beginnings, RJI has a local funding base. The first fourteen cases were referred by twelve different sources. Cases have ranged from vandalism to a situation of accidental death and another involving death threats. Half of the cases have involved juvenile offenders and the other half adult offenders. Howard Zehr, an EMU professor instrumental in starting the first restorative justice program in the U.S. and a consultant nationally and internationally is very pleased with the progress RJI has made. He recently said, "I have helped start dozens of programs in North America and this one is developing very quickly."

    For those interested in beginning Restorative Justice programs in their local area, training for establishing these programs will be offered in Harrisonburg April 6 & 7, 2000. Please call RJI offices for further information (540) 438-8600.

    Nathan Barge, M.A. recently returned from 14 years of peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and development activities in Central America. He is the Acting Director of Restorative Justice Initiatives.

    Timothy Ruebke, M.A. has worked at the Community Mediation Center in Harrisonburg for seven years and functions as the Director of Mediation Services. He is also the Acting Associate Director of RJI.

    This page last modified: March 23, 2000