When I speak of justice in a new reality, I am primarily referring to criminal justice.
For a couple of decades, I have advocated the use of “restorative justice” as an optional response to wrongdoing in criminal justice systems. Restorative justice offers victims, offenders, and their families and friends the opportunity to talk with one another, in a safe setting, with a competent facilitator to organize the process.
I wrote a book about a particular approach to restorative justice called “Real Justice,” and founded a global Real Justice training network.
At the heart of the new reality in justice is decentralized power and participatory decision-making. To illustrate justice in a new reality, I will highlight restorative justice history, activity in a small country and in a small state, as well as research into the benefits of restorative justice for victims:
- The first recognized case of restorative justice was in Canada, when two offenders met with their victims to have a conversation and to apologize for vandalism to their homes.
- Terry O’Connell pioneered the restorative conference in Australia, developing the restorative questions and script that became the basis for the Real Justice model of conferencing.
- The New Zealand Ministry of Justice has achieved the most extensive and sustained restorative justice program of any country, through Family Group Conferences for young people and a growing adult restorative justice program that has achieved meaningful reductions in re-offending.
- The Community Justice Network of Vermont comes closest to the ideal of restorative justice at a community level. Police, probation, corrections, schools and volunteers have sustained and expanded restorative and community justice in Vermont for more than two decades.
- Carolyn Angel’s research identified the favorable effects of restorative justice on post-traumatic stress in victims of crime, and pointed the way to a new goal for the criminal justice system: to reduce the impact of crime.
Opportunity for a Conversation
In 1974, Mark Yantzi, a young probation officer in Elmira, Ontario, arranged for two young men who had vandalized a neighborhood to meet their victims. What quickly became apparent was that victims cared less about punishment and restitution than the opportunity to have a conversation.
It seems that such a conversation helps everyone touched by a crime—from victims and offenders to their families and friends—to deal with the emotional consequences of the incident.
Yantzi and his colleague, Dave Worth, a prison support worker, accompanied the two offenders up and down the streets of Elmira, as they apologized to their victims and listened to victims explain the impact the crime had on them. Yantzi described the victims as “very appreciative and responsive to the offenders. I think they were taken aback that the offenders were there to apologize and listen to them.”
This was the first recognized case of restorative justice in Canada. From this experiment evolved the first victim offender reconciliation programs (VORP) and victim offender mediation (VOM), which spread around North America, Europe and elsewhere. In New Zealand, in 1989, the initially unrelated development of the family group conference (FGC) came to be seen as an important new type of restorative justice.
I first became aware of restorative justice when Terry O’Connell, an Australian police officer speaking at an event in Pennsylvania, described how he had been inspired by the New Zealand FGC to develop a conference process that enabled police officers to divert young people from court.
He wrote a script to facilitate restorative conferences between offenders, victims and their family and friends, with a set of questions that seemed to satisfy everyone’s needs, while establishing boundaries for police officers who might be tempted to participate in the discussion. Police were instructed to just stick to the written script and ask the questions; don’t intrude into the discussion by the participants.
O’Connell explained that the questions encourage participants to talk about their own experience, and thereby foster a shared understanding of how everyone has been affected by an incident.
I coordinated my efforts with O’Connell when I founded Real Justice™ as a proprietary training program, based on the restorative conference model he developed. Real Justice established a global network that has trained tens of thousands of practitioners around the world, while providing an independent revenue stream that continues to subsidize IIRP’s efforts, including its new master’s degree program in restorative practices.
At the outset, Real Justice was criticized by victim-offender mediators as the “McDonaldization” of restorative justice. However, the quality control achieved by this standardized approach to restorative conferences has enabled the program to maintain fidelity while growing rapidly. The standardization has also enabled large-scale implementation and scientific research.
Evaluations of thousands of Real Justice conferences by varied researchers, in varied settings, with varied offenses and in varied countries, have reliably demonstrated that ninety-plus percent of all participants—victims, offenders and their supporters—express satisfaction and a sense of fairness with the process…an impressive result.
Other research has indicated that Real Justice-type restorative conferences reduce re-offending rates. Despite such positive outcomes, most criminal justice systems have resisted substantial involvement with restorative justice.
In larger countries such as the U.S. and the U.K.—where interest in restorative justice has grown over the years—the number of cases where actual restorative justice is employed is still very small.
In the U.K. there is now an official Restorative Justice Council, and many jurisdictions claim to have implemented some form of RJ; but the March, 2016 Crime Survey for England and Wales reports that only 4.2 percent of victims “were given opportunity to meet offender.”
The Restorative Questions
After retiring from the police service, Terry O’Connell collaborated with Real Justice in opening an office in Australia to further promote conferencing. At the same time, he realized that people could use the questions from the conference script in a variety of informal settings, including classrooms, treatment settings and at home with parenting issues. He put the so-called “restorative questions” he had designed for the conference script onto business cards to make them more readily accessible to parents and practitioners.
O’Connell has freely allowed others to use his copyrighted questions, so that many organizations around the world now distribute his restorative question cards in many languages.
New Zealand is a small country that has achieved the most extensive restorative justice reform in the world.
Starting with an innovative 1989 law that pioneered the “family group conference” (FGC), New Zealand now mandates that before the courts can remove children from their homes, either for delinquency or child abuse, families must be given the opportunity for a meeting to develop their own plan to keep their children at home. The victims of young offenders’ crimes are also invited to the conference.
The concept of the FGC was a response to the Maori—New Zealand’s indigenous people—who were alarmed by the all-too-frequent removal of children from their homes in child abuse and juvenile delinquency cases.
Since the law went into effect, in a country of only 4.6 million people, there have been well over 100,000 conferences. The net effect, according to former New Zealand Judge Fred McElrea, “was that many expensive institutions were able to be closed, and court sittings dealing with young people were greatly reduced.”
McElrea wrote that the outcome has been unquantified, but has realized “substantial savings—not only in dollar terms, but also in terms of the unintended damage that those institutions can cause.” Writing in 2012, he was proud of New Zealand’s implementation of restorative justice for children and youth, but speculated about why “the usage of restorative justice for adults is so low.”
However, figures for the 2015 calendar year show the number of adult offender cases referred for a restorative justice assessment tripled from around 4,000 to just over 12,000, compared to 2014.
The increases follow a change to the New Zealand law in December 2014, “which requires courts to refer eligible cases for an assessment to see whether restorative justice is appropriate.”
Restorative justice has proven beneficial in a New Zealand study of young offenders aged 17 to 19, where reoffending rates were 17 per cent lower, and 30 per cent fewer offenses were committed per offender.
Vermont is the second-smallest U.S. state, yet it has achieved the most extensive restorative and community justice implementation. As of 2015, in a state with only 426,000 population, Vermont has established 20 community justice centers that reported 1,819 new restorative justice panel referrals and 58 new Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSAs) during that year.
Each CoSA represents an extraordinary investment by trained community volunteers who commit to attending one year of weekly support circles, a group of three or four volunteers for each of the 58 individuals who are transitioning from prison to their community. In a talking circle, each person speaks in turn without interruption, providing a forum in which everyone is guaranteed a voice.
“The COSA concept comes from a proven Canadian program, started by the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario to provide ‘radical hospitality’ to people, who in the absence of community support and accountability, were likely to reoffend, thereby creating safer communities.”
I first met John Gorzyk, commissioner of Vermont Corrections, in the early 1990s, around the time he and his colleagues had the radical idea that it might be good to ask Vermont citizens what they wanted from their state’s justice system.
Their research indicated that citizens did not necessarily want tougher laws with longer prison sentences in response to crime, as politicians routinely assume, but they wanted something meaningful to happen.
Vermont residents expressed an interest in more involvement with the justice system, to allow communities to better respond to crime and conflict. According to the Community Justice Network of Vermont website, Vermonters “wanted repair, not vengeance; what was broken, fixed; what was stolen, returned; what was defaced, cleaned; what was destroyed, replaced.”
As a result of this research, in 1994, the Department of Corrections piloted “Reparative Probation,” to allow volunteers to voice the harm to community and facilitate a restorative agreement with those responsible.
In 1998, based on the success of those programs, the Department of Corrections (DOC) partnered with municipalities to develop the first Community Justice Centers (CJCs). Not only did Vermont residents achieve more voice and more choice, but they assumed more responsibility. In 2015, more than 700 Vermont volunteers contributed more than 22,000 hours in support of their local Community Justice Center’s efforts.
Vermont has pioneered systematic use of restorative and community justice with offenders. However, its community justice centers recognize that they could improve their efforts on behalf of victims, much like New Zealand has done.
Victim Needs: A New Priority for the Criminal Justice System
The most compelling reason to support restorative justice is for the benefit of victims. Research suggests that victim needs alone provide sufficient justification to hold restorative conferences—even it does not reduce re-offending,
Dr. Caroline M. Angel, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Pennsylvania in the U.S, studied the impact of restorative conferencing on post-traumatic stress symptoms in victims of burglary and robbery in London, U.K.
Angel conducted interviews with the subjects to assess their level of psychological stress both six weeks and six months following the conferences. The indicators she measured are the kinds of symptoms crime victims report having, sometimes for many years after the incident:
- intrusive memories of the crime
- difficulty sleeping
- feelings of anger
- physical symptoms
One group of test subjects participated in restorative conferences, in which a trained facilitator brings together victims, offenders, and their supporters to talk about how they have been affected by the incident.
“The most striking thing was that conferences reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said. Six months after the crime, victims who participated in conferences reported forty percent less stress than those who did not participate. “What you have here is a one-time program that’s effective in producing benefits for the majority of people…I thought that was an incredibly important public health benefit.”
Most criminal justice professionals will tell you that they aim to reduce crime. In truth, that is very difficult to accomplish and rarely happens. So, if we can’t reliably reduce crime, Caroline Angel’s research tells us that for a modest cost, we could reliably reduce the impact of crime.
Not like in the U.K. where only 4.2 percent of victims are offered the opportunity; not like in the U.S., where there are a few scattered cases in a few scattered jurisdictions; but on a systematic basis, like New Zealand.
Every crime victim deserves a chance for restorative justice.