Victims' Experiences with, Expectations and Perceptions of Restorative Justice: A critical Review of the Literature
Court-based programs can take place at various stages in the criminal justice process; either before entering a guilty plea, after a guilty plea but before sentencing, or at sentencing. Unlike the diversion programs, these programs do not aim to divert offenders out of the system. Typically, the offender’s case will be re-entered into the criminal justice system after participation in a restorative justice program.
Coates and Gehm (1989) examined eight victim-offender reconciliation programs (VORP) in the United States. Most (80%) of the cases in their study were referred to VORP at sentencing; the remainder were part of an effort to divert cases out of the criminal justice system. While most of the offenders (73%) were juveniles, adult offenders could participate in the programs as well. Of particular interest are their findings on who participates in VORP and why, as well as their evaluations of the programs. Their findings are based on interviews with 37 victims who had participated in face-to-face mediation, and telephone interviews with 26 victims who refused to participate.
Coates and Gehm (1989) reported that victims chose to participate in VORP with the hopes of:
- recovering their loss,
- helping the offender,
- participating meaningfully in the criminal justice process,
- teaching the offender a lesson,
- making the offender understand that his or her behaviour had hurt people, and
- holding the offender accountable for his or her behaviour.
- Victims who chose not to participate indicated that:
- the loss did not merit the perceived hassle of involvement,
- they were afraid of meeting the offender, and
- they had already worked out a settlement.
Among the 37 victims who participated in VORP, 59% were satisfied with the experience. Interestingly, the offenders were more often satisfied with VORP than the victims - 83% of the offenders were satisfied with the experience. Only 11% of the victims expressed some dissatisfaction. When asked if they would be willing to participate in VORP again in the future, all but one said yes.
Victims were most satisfied with:
- the opportunity to meet the offender and thereby obtain a better understanding of the crime and the offender’s situation,
- the opportunity to receive restitution for loss,
- the expression of remorse on the part of the offender, and
- the care and concern of the mediator.
Victims were least satisfied with:
- lack of follow-up,
- lack of leverage on the offender to fulfil the agreed contract,
- the delay between the crime and the VORP resolution, and
- the amount of time required to participate in VORP.
Regarding the suitability of mediation as a sanction, 70% of the victims who had participated in VORP felt that the offender had been punished adequately. Twenty-four percent indicated that the punishment was too little and 5% felt that it was too much.
John Gehm (1990) conducted a review of the literature on victim participation in VORP and found that victim willingness to participate in a face-to-face meeting with the offender is related to both offence and offender characteristics. Victims were more likely to meet their offender in a face-to-face meeting when their offender was white, when the offence committed was a misdemeanour (versus felony) and when the victim was an institution rather than an individual. He reported that most research shows that victims decline to participate in a meeting for one of two reasons: the meeting was perceived as not worth the trouble (e.g. trivial loss, too much time involved) or the victim had excessive anxiety over the prospect of meeting the offender. He suggested that, for some victims, VORP has the potential for reopening closed wounds. As an advocate of restorative justice, Gehm suggested that:
If programs are concerned about increasing victim participation in VORP, they may want to consider ways to address victim hesitancy to re-expose themselves to the emotions of victimization experience. For example, rather than immediately soliciting participation in a face-to-face meeting, practitioners may want to consider addressing victims’ psychological needs through other mechanisms first (1990:181).
Netzig and Trenczek (1996) conducted interviews with participants in a VORP in Germany. The program was limited to adult offenders who had committed moderately serious offences, such as theft, burglary, grievous bodily harm, damage to property and fraud. Cases were referred to the program by the district attorney; following mediation, they were returned back to the district attorney for further processing.
Interestingly, the authors reported that face-to-face mediation took place in only one third of the cases dealt with successfully. In about two thirds of the cases, mediation took place indirectly with the mediator talking to each of the affected parties individually. The researchers conducted 75 in-depth interviews with victims and offenders who participated in face-to-face meetings. The authors did not specify how many interviews were carried out with victims and how many involved offenders.
The authors reported that 28% of the victims refused to participate. Reasons given were:
- the victim wanted nothing more to do with the matter,
- the victim wanted the case to be decided by a judge, and
- the victim was angry.
Victims reported the following reasons for participating in direct mediation. They want to:
- ask the offender questions so that they can come to terms with what happened;
- know what kind of person the offender is;
- know why the offender committed the crime;
- tell the offender what they think;
- confront the offender with the
consequences of his or her actions;
- be able to get anger, grief and disgust off their chests; and
- put an end to the conflict and avoid further escalation (especially for crimes
- where there is a relationship between the victim and the offender).
After participating, many victims claim that mediation helped them to deal with what happened. This appeared to be particularly important for victims of violent crime who often experienced excessive fear after their victimization. Interestingly, the authors reported that during the mediation talks, financial demands take a back seat and non-material aspects gain in importance. They also reported that victims of crimes that occurred within the family often see VORP as an opportunity to set clear and binding limits with the offender, without destroying his or her life, ending the relationship, or drawing other family members into the conflict.
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