Victims' Experiences with, Expectations and Perceptions of Restorative Justice: A critical Review of the Literature
- 4.1 Violent Crimes
Many of the existing restorative justice practices, particularly victim-offender mediation programs, focus primarily on non-violent property crimes and minor assaults (Umbreit et al., 1999; Umbreit and Bradshaw, 1997). Very few restorative justice programs have been implemented to deal with more serious crimes (Beckers, 2000; Bonta et al., 1998; Umbreit and Bradshaw, 1997). Victimization surveys reveal that 74% of violent crimes involve a relationship between victims and offenders (Besserer and Trainor, 2000). On the one hand, the fact that parties already know each other and share some kind of relationship makes these cases particularly suitable for conflict resolution. On the other hand, the seriousness of these offences and the power imbalance often inherent in violent offences makes them less suitable for restorative justice initiatives. In this section, the literature found on victims’ expectations and experiences with restorative justice practices intended for victims of violent crime, domestic violence and sexual assault is reviewed.
Research conducted by Flaten (1996) examined seven cases of victim-offender mediation dealing with serious offences (manslaughter, attempted murder, breaking and entering with attempted murder, and burglary) committed by juvenile offenders who were sentenced and detained in a correctional facility. The mediation process focuses mainly on the reconciliation of both parties and reparation is encouraged.
The author wanted to determine whether the participants considered the mediation to be successful and what factors they considered to have contributed to its success or lack of success. In-depth interviews were conducted between one and two years after the mediation with participants. In all, seven victims participated in the study. No information is given on the four victims who participated in the program but were not interviewed. Due to the limited number of victims interviewed, it is impossible to generalize the findings to the general population. However, the qualitative data presented can be informative with respect to victims’ experiences with restorative justice.
Flaten (1996) reported that all victims interviewed found the mediation process helpful in obtaining closure. Victims expressed a better understanding of the incident and felt they could accept it as a past event. A concern with the offenders’ rehabilitation also surfaced as victims mentioned the importance of being able to tell the offender how they wanted the person to improve his or her life. In addition, four victims stated that it was beneficial to have seen the offender in person and to have heard him or her apologize.
According to the victims interviewed, preparation prior to the mediation and the time elapsed between the mediation and the offence were considered factors contributing to the success of the mediation. Victims recommended using mediation at least a year following the incident, as they said it gave them enough time to deal with their feelings of anger and grief. Flaten also stated that most victims were involved with some type of counselling or were in contact with a victims’ advocacy group before the mediation.
Most victims felt that the process was appropriate when dealing with serious offences and that it should be made available to other victims. Voluntary participation and the progression of the treatment of the offender were regarded as important elements to consider.
While most victims described the mediation as successful, one victim reported being dissatisfied with the outcome of his case since the offender did not complete the restitution agreement. The victim also felt that the offender should be accountable for what happened. The victim was unaware that the offender was still incarcerated and that no enforcement procedure was available. It is important to note that the victim originally believed he was meeting a young offender chosen at random who committed a burglary, whereas the offender, during the mediation, told the victim that he was the actual person who committed the crime against him. This example illustrates the importance of preparation prior to mediation.
Langley, British Columbia
Operated by the Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association, the Victim-Offender Mediation Project (VOMP) focuses on cases of serious crime, such as aggravated sexual assault, serial rape, murder and armed robbery. The main purpose of the program is to promote the healing of the victim and offender by stimulating dialogue (direct or indirect) between both the offender and the victim. Many different types of interventions were developed, including support, counselling, information, indirect communication via videotapes and letters, and face-to-face meetings with the offender. Face-to-face meetings between offenders and victims do not always take place. It is the participants who decide on the pace and extent of the process. Both the victim and the offender can initiate the mediation process. However, in most cases an intermediate person or organization refers the victim or offender to the program.
Roberts (1995) included qualitative data on victims’ experiences with the program in an extensive program evaluation. In total, 24 face-to-face and telephone interviews were conducted with victims (11 victims of sexual assault, 5 relatives of murder victims, 6 victims of armed robbery, 2 other victims) who participated in the program.
Motives varied among victims when considering whether to participate in the program. Some stated being merely curious and others expressed the desire to help the offender. The most common reasons were the need to know more about the offence and to share its impact with the offender. Some also felt that they had to participate to finally get closure. For some victims, other forms of intervention such as victim assistance and counselling could not provide closure. These other forms of intervention could not satisfy their need to find out things about the offender and the offence and to be able to convey the impact of the offence. The second most popular response mentioned by victims was that the VOMP staff inspired them.
Some victims (17), however, expressed having some fears prior to the mediation process. These fears were:
- fear of the staff being pro-offender,
- fear of opening old wounds,
- fear of acting inappropriately in a
- fear of being too scared to start or
complete the process, and
- fear of the unknown.
As mentioned earlier, the participants could decide on the pace and extent of the program. Victims who just wanted information about the offender preferred to participate via videotape or by exchanging letters. Video was used to ask questions and receive answers to questions. In addition, victims used video to assess the offender’s sincerity and reactions. Those who were concerned about the impact of the crime and who had a previous relationship with the offender were usually willing to proceed with a face-to-face meeting. Victims who wanted to meet the offender:
- believed the offender’s motives,
- felt that the offender could not exercise any authority, and
- felt strong and safe enough to face the offender.
Victims appreciated meeting the offender. They felt that meeting the person directly, to see him or her as a real human being, gave them a sense of control and allowed them to move forward in their lives. They appreciated knowing how and why the offence happened and hearing this directly from the offender.
The flexibility of the program was also greatly appreciated. Victims were allowed to determine the extent and pace of the process, and this gave them a sense of being in control. Moreover, they felt that staff members listened to their concerns. Two victims also expressed the importance of being able to choose either male or female staff support and mediators.
Victims who participated in a face to-face meeting with the offender identified the following factors as important and helpful:
- the acknowledgement of responsibility from offender or apology from offender,
- being able to express anger about the crime and its impact,
- getting answers, and
- seeing the offender being affected or being honest.
Victims also expressed satisfaction with the immediate and long-term follow-ups. Victims were contacted by staff a couple of days after meeting. The frequency and duration of the follow-ups varied depending on the victims’ needs.
All but one victim stated that they had been able to achieve closure and to come to terms with what had happened. Specifically, victims indicated that they felt like they had finally been listened to, and that the offender was unable to have control over them. Victims were now able to see the offender as a person rather than as a monster. They also mentioned feeling more trusting in their relationships with others, less fearful, no longer angry, and at peace with themselves.
In general, victims reported that they felt the process was empowering. Although some victims doubted the offender’s ultimate capacity for positive conduct in society, they clearly expressed support for the program for themselves, and as a valuable process in and of itself. They thought it was professionally run and would recommend it to others. This was true even for two victims who felt that the offender was not being totally honest and denied some things about the offence.
New York, Wisconsin and Minnesota
Umbreit (1989, 1990) presented seven case studies involving violent offenders and their victims to demonstrate the potential use of victim-offender reconciliation programs dealing with violent crimes. The cases described involved six types of violent crimes – armed robbery, sexual assault, assault, negligent homicide, a sniper shooting and burglary – involving eight victims. The mediation sessions took place following the offender’s sentencing, specifically during the person’s incarceration.
The author conducted interviews with victims who had participated in the program. In addition, Umbreit participated as co-mediator in the mediation sessions involving the sniper shooting. Unfortunately, the author did not provide any specific information about when the interviews were conducted.
Although it is difficult to draw any conclusions from the case studies presented due to the limited sample and the lack of information on the study design, the qualitative data collected are informative.
When invited to participate in a meeting with the offender, one victim did not hesitate while three others did not immediately agree to the mediation. For these three victims, numerous contacts were required.
The reasons given by victims for their participation in the program were to:
- ask the offender questions,
- understand why the incident had occurred, and
- see the person who committed the crime.
Following mediation, most victims felt their questions had been answered and that they had a better understanding of the person who had committed the offence. These victims also indicated that they felt capable of forgiving the offender. Although most victims felt they had the opportunity to obtain emotional closure, two victims remained angry but with lesser intensity than before the mediation (Umbreit 1989, 1990). As there were no interviews with victims prior to mediation, it is not possible to attribute any differences to the mediation process.
Umbreit described a specific model used in cases of violent crimes identified as Victim-Sensitive Offender Dialogue (VSOD), which differs from the traditional victim-offender mediation process usually employed with property and minor crimes. Umbreit et al. stated that this new approach has a number of distinguishing characteristics:
Emotional intensity; extreme need for non judgmental attitude; longer case preparation by mediator (6 to 18 months); multiple separate meetings prior to joint session; multiple phone conversations; negotiating with correctional officials to secure access to inmate and to conduct mediation in prison; coaching of participants in the communication of intense feelings; and boundary clarification (mediation/dialogue versus therapy) (1999: 323).
The VSOD requires essentially an extensively trained mediator, longer case preparation - which is a crucial phase of the process prior to actual mediation - and mandatory follow-ups subsequent to the mediation. This new mediation approach is qualified as a “humanistic mediation,” which focuses mainly on the dialogue between both parties.
To better explain the model and its implications for future practice, Umbreit briefly presented two case studies, each involving the parents of murdered children. In one case, a mother whose son was robbed and murdered met with the offender. In the second case,
the mother and father of a young girl who was abducted, raped and murdered met the offender. Since it was not the specific intent of his article, no detailed information was given on the data collection process. The examples used by Umbreit do, however, include information regarding victims’ expectations and experiences with the mediation procedure.
Umbreit stated that in both cases the parents of the murdered children wanted to meet the offender to get answers to their questions. One of the parents also expressed the need to see the offender and a desire for him to feel and see her pain.
In both cases, the victims (the parents) felt certain questions were left unanswered and some responses were unsatisfactory. In one case, the victim declared that although she could not forgive him, she still wanted the offender to do well and that she no longer saw him as inhuman. In the second case, the victims mentioned doubting the truthfulness of the offender’s story; however, there was evidence of remorse. They also expressed the desire to help the offender and mentioned finally being able to move on.
Although very few studies were found that explored the expectations and experiences of victims of violent crimes with restorative justice programs and only a limited number of victims participated in each study that was reviewed, the results show that there is an interest in restorative justice among victims of violent crimes.
Reasons for participating in restorative justice programs include:
- helping the offender,
- getting answers to questions,
- confronting the offender with the consequences of his or her behaviour, and
- seeking closure.
When looking at victims’ participation in restorative justice programs, no data are presented on victims refusing to take part in such programs and the reasons for declining to participate. A question arises concerning victim voluntarism. When looking at the findings in Umbreit’s study (1989, 1990), it is stated that numerous contacts were sometimes made with victims before they agreed to participate. Clearly, participation must be fully voluntary.
It is important that procedures are sensitive to victims’ needs. Important factors include proper preparation of victims before the meeting and follow-up counselling afterwards. A good example of this is the mediation project in Langley, B.C., which included immediate and long-term follow-ups. Depending on the victim’s needs, victims in this project were offered many different types of interventions, including indirect mediation.
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