by Ted Wachtel
I was surprised that my college friend, David Heekin, the author of the BANR blogpost entitled, “Ye Olde Curmudgeon,” chose to write about the time he stole my leather jacket and I forgave him and never told our fraternity brothers.
He praised me for my way of handling the incident, which he called a “restorative practice,” but what he didn’t know was that a half dozen years earlier, I had committed several impulsive burglaries. I stole loose cash and bottles of whiskey from a few wealthy homes; not items of great value, but I fully understood that good people sometimes makes bad decisions. My short life of crime had a huge impact on me, and is probably a big part of why—as an adult—I developed schools and group homes for delinquent and at-risk youth, and restorative justice programs for crime victims.
Near the end of his blogpost, Heekin questioned whether restorative “circles and public humiliation cause shame and anger as much as they produce positive results.” Unless you’ve had some experience with restorative justice, it’s hard to imagine how you could bring victims and offenders together and get good outcomes.
Surely, some restorative justice practices and practitioners are better than others, but I was involved with research that found that 90-plus percent of victims, offenders and other participants express satisfaction and a sense of fairness in thousands of restorative justice conferences held in the U.S. and the U.K. It rarely gets more positive than that.
In my own experience as a restorative justice facilitator for crimes and school disciplinary incidents, I find the process benefits everyone, at least in terms of resolving feelings and allowing people to move on emotionally from the incident. Research shows that victims of serious crimes have dramatically less post traumatic stress if they participate in a restorative conference with the offenders and their families and friends. Offenders, having had an opportunity to make amends, feel reintegrated into their communities.
A significant reason that restorative conferences are so successful is because they are voluntary. By choosing to come to an event, participants are predisposed to make the process work. Importantly, a restorative conference does not humiliate offenders—Heekin’s understandable concern. Rather, it provides an opportunity for offenders to reduce their own shame and anger, but only if they wanna. In a new reality, we advocate for processes that provide more voice, more choice and more shared responsibility.
Funnily, I remember a school superintendent who challenged me with the question, “How do you know handling school discipline in these restorative conferences won’t cause some kid to commit suicide?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m just guessing, but I suspect it’s a lower risk than just throwing the kid out of school.”
Does restorative conferencing reduce re-offending? Yes, the evidence is positive.
But the strongest evidence is the research that shows restorative justice reliably benefits victims, by dramatically reducing the emotional impact of a crime. It simply makes crime victims feel better and reduces PTS (post traumatic stress), even for those who have lost loved ones to murder.
In the award-winning Australian documentary, Facing the Demons, pioneering Australian police officer, Terry O’Connell, convenes a restorative justice conference for those still suffering the emotional consequences of a young man’s murder in a pizza shop robbery four years earlier. The reliable and cost-effective benefit to those who have been harmed seems reason enough to implement restorative justice around the globe.
I’ve invited David Heekin to attend an IIRP four-day Basic Restorative Practices training event in California, which will include several simulations of restorative conferences. I’ll be interested to read his blog posts after he’s had that experience.
My wife, Susan, who worked with our schools and group homes for delinquent and at-risk youth, and in the IIRP Graduate School we founded, insists that those simulations—short of the real thing—are one of the best ways to understand why participating in a restorative process is so useful and effective.