Virginia's Judicial System

Restorative Justice - A Paradigm Shift in Response to Crime

Bringing a victim of a crime together with the offender for a dialogue about impact, accountability, and repair of the harm - this is the ultimate practice of the paradigm known as "restorative justice." Is this a form of mediation/alternative dispute resolution? Can certified mediators jump into this practice? If not, what does it take? And where in Virginia is it being done?

Although the term "victim offender mediation" is often used, it is not really an accurate term. First, it is crucial to understand that from the victim's perspective: "Mediate what? I didn't choose to be in this!" To an offender, "mediation" may imply there is joint responsibility or points of potential compromise, undercutting the sense of full accountability.

There are models of "restorative conferencing" (often used these days as a more sensitive and broader term) that involve only the direct victims and the offenders speaking, although supporters may be present, and others - usually done in circles - which include the active participation of relatives, counselors, and sometimes justice officials and community members.

As these processes are dialogue-driven, rather than settlement or agreement-driven, the importance of preparation, which is much more than screening or evaluation, becomes key. Many people are not used to the notion of meeting face-to-face with the perpetrator, and vice versa. They need to understand the process, think about the benefits, and think about how to articulate their experience and how to think about what repairing the harm could look like.

Therefore, unlike most mediation processes, the facilitator's role is much more proactive in the contact, screening, and pre-conference preparation stages than in the actual meeting. When people have been well-informed of the benefits and challenges of conferencing and have had the chance to tell their stories beforehand to the facilitator, they are much more confident, if not comfortable, in voluntarily going forward. Facilitators need to be (1) well-grounded in the principles of restorative justice - including the importance of voluntary participation, (2) well trained in victim sensitivity, trauma response, impact of crime, and the criminal justice system, and (3) be able to actively draw out the story from all parties in non-judgmental ways. The latter skill is one many mediators have!

Hearing the offender admit the harm in a pre-conference meeting is just the first step. Convictions after trial or a guilty plea do not guarantee the offender has any sense of accountability to the victim or the community. The facilitator must be able to get them to open up and be able to move them through a process of recognizing their responsibility and, hopefully, of understanding both the "why's" of what they did and the possible impact on others, including their own family and friends. The facilitator will want to assure that the offender will act and speak in a way that does not re-victimize the harmed parties. The facilitator has to be willing to exert enough energy to determine what support the offender needs in preparation, even practice, without putting words in their mouths or acting "parental." There is also the task of preparing the supporters for their roles, especially the parents.

Briefly, victim offender conferencing programs exist in the Harrisonburg Community Mediation Center, the Prince William County Office of Dispute Resolution, the Piedmont Dispute Resolution Center, and the Norfolk Court Services Unit. These programs all require substantial training in restorative conferencing (at least two full days), and it is hoped that anyone attempting to do such cases will get appropriate training and, if operating independently, enlist the mentorship of a more experienced facilitator.

And a strong caveat here - although most of the local programs in Virginia are facilitating cases of property damage and minor assaults, this type of work is also being done in cases of severe or violent crimes. All experts agree that much additional training, expertise, and assistance from therapeutic professionals is necessary to assure a preparation and meeting process that is safe, appropriate, and healthy for all parties.

Phyllis Turner Lawrence, J.D., formerly the Prince William program coordinator, is a consultant and trainer in victim services and restorative justice. She practiced law for 16 years, worked for the National Organization for Victim Assistance, and is a graduate of the National Institute of Corrections Restorative Justice Academy's training for trainers. Feel free to contact her for more information and training opportunities at [email protected] or 703-379-4575.

This page last modified: October 18, 2002