Victims' Experiences with, Expectations and Perceptions of Restorative Justice: A critical Review of the Literature
District of Columbia, US
The District of Columbia Mediation Services (DCMS) organizes mediation for cases of domestic violence. A person can file a complaint to the Citizens’ Complaint where an intake worker meets with the complainant, and suggests one or more possible solutions, including mediation. Two mediators are assigned to the case. If both parties agree, the mediation session will take place. The mediators are no longer involved once the mediation is over and parties have come to an agreement. If no agreement has been reached, parties are left to their own plans, except if the mediation was combined with another remedy. A solution can also be combined with other remedies (e.g. the complainant may be referred to the prosecutor and following prosecution, mediation can be initiated). However, the remedies suggested will depend on each case individually. With respect to domestic violence cases, mediation will not be recommended if:
- the victim has suffered injury,
- a gun was used to threaten the victim,
- the violent behaviour is repetitive, and
- there does not appear to be sufficient parity of bargaining power between parties.
- The selection criteria defined are therefore very restrictive.
Two months after the mediation, a staff member of the DCMS contacts both parties to assess their experiences with the mediation process and outcomes. Bethel and Single (1982) presented the results from victims’ interviews for a six-month period (August 1980 through January 1981).
The findings demonstrated that most victims were satisfied with the mediation process (80%) and felt the hearing was conducted fairly (90%). When asked if they were allowed to say everything, 95% of victims responded affirmatively.
Regarding the outcome, 80% of victims were satisfied with the agreement while 73% mentioned that the offender maintained the agreement. When questioned on the occurrence of further problems after the mediation, 76% stated that no further problems were present. Among the victims who declared further problems, four reported more assaults and four others complained of harassment.
According to the authors, the high satisfaction rate showed that mediation can be suitable for less serious forms of domestic assault. They justified the success as a result of a good screening process, and that only certain types of domestic violence cases were referred to mediation. However, the selection criteria are very restrictive and as stated by Rowe:
These guidelines, taken together with an understanding of the dynamics of the battering relationship, would appear to eliminate virtually all cases of domestic violence (1985: 884).
Charlotte, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, US
Smith (1983, 1988) examined the experiences of victims who knew their offender (e.g. victim’s husband, boyfriend, mother, friend, neighbour) to evaluate their perceptions of the criminal court’s response. She compared a non-random assigned group of victims who went to court with a group of victims who were diverted to mediation in three different cities: Charlotte, N.C., Los Angeles, Calif. and Minneapolis, Minn. Mediation cases were either referred directly by the prosecutor, upon refusal to prosecute, or, if the prosecutor decided to prosecute, the criminal court judge could decide to divert the case to mediation.
To determine levels of victims’ satisfaction, structured interviews were conducted within a three-month period after the cases were disposed, with 125 victims of non-stranger violence who were referred to court and 75 victims who were diverted to mediation.
All the cases in the sample involved misdemeanour assaults as a result of which more than two thirds of the victims had sustained injuries and one quarter required medical attention. Most cases involved bodily force and one quarter of the assaults involved weapons such as guns and knives. No information is given on the proportion of these cases that were the result of domestic violence. In fact, although Smith examined the experiences of non-stranger violence victims who participated in mediation or went to court, no distinction is made about the type of relationship between the victim and the offender. Consequently, it is difficult to interpret the results if examining domestic violence cases exclusively. Also, the non-random assigned groups and the post-test design make it impossible to attribute any observed differences between groups to the specific treatments.
When examining victims’ experiences with the processes, victims in the mediation sample indicated that they felt they had had a chance to tell their story and an influence on the final outcome. In contrast to the experiences of the victims in the mediation sample, the court victims reported having little opportunity to participate in the process. Victims in the mediation sample reported higher rates of participation than the court victims.
Also, victims in the mediation sample were more satisfied with their treatment than the court victims, although the difference was not statistically significant. Nevertheless, most victims, whether they participated in mediation or attended court, indicated that they felt they were well treated. Overall, victims in the court and mediation sample reported similar satisfaction rates with the process.
The author explained that the high level of satisfaction among the court victims was associated with the special courtrooms for domestic violence cases in the Charlotte and Minneapolis samples. These courtrooms have been implemented specifically to handle cases of domestic violence and the court personnel have expertise with these types of cases. For example, judges can take their time to explain the procedure to victims. While the author stated that satisfaction is related to the method of dealing with the victim in court, she did not address victim satisfaction in the mediation sample.
Smith reported that although a majority of the victims in the mediation and the court sample were satisfied with legal officials, the court or mediation process, and their treatment, there were still some victims who expressed dissatisfaction (25% to almost 50% in some cases).
Comparing victims’ perceptions on the immediate outcomes, victims in the mediation sample were more likely to be satisfied with the outcome than those in the court sample, but this was not statistically significant. Victims reported similar satisfaction rates whether the case resulted in a guilty plea or verdict, or dismissal. The author explained that satisfaction rates with the outcome (guilty plea or verdict, or dismissal) were mostly correlated with the victims’ perceptions of the termination of the violence. Smith stated:
Victims tended to be satisfied if the violence stopped and dissatisfied if it did not, regardless of the outcome (1988: 190). Smith also examined the occurrence of further problems
(e.g. nervousness, financial distress, fear of revenge, concerns about safety, family problems) two to three months after the closure of the case. She found that 22% of victims in the court sample reported renewed problems with the offender compared to 15% of victims in the mediation sample. She also indicated that a slightly higher percentage of victims (24%) who had intimate relationships with the other party reported renewed problems, without specifying which sample.
The author also reported that 31% of victims whose cases were dismissed stated experiencing further problems compared to 15% of victims whose cases resulted in a guilty plea or verdict. However, when asked if the court system’s response was helpful in improving the relationship with the other party, many victims in the court sample (79%) and in the mediation sample (77%) believed that the treatment was helpful or at least somewhat helpful in improving their relationship with the other party. Smith stated:
Thus even when the court’s treatment is not entirely effective in deterring problems, it may lessen the frequency or seriousness of recurring problems (1988: 191).
Very few studies were found on domestic violence victims’ experiences with restorative justice. Once again, these studies are limited to victim-offender mediation practices. Both studies reviewed contain weaknesses concerning the definition of domestic violence. Bethel and Singer (1982) employed a very narrow definition, and Smith (1988) did not clarify the proportion of cases defined as domestic violence. Nevertheless, these studies showed that there is a group of victims of domestic violence who are interested in restorative justice processes and, as such, the issue merits further exploration.
Gustafson (1997), in an address to the prison governors in Leuven, Belgium, presented a case study involving victims of a serial rapist. Two of the victims had heard of the victim-offender mediation project dealing with serious crimes in Langley, B.C., and wanted further information on its process. Gustafson recalled his encounter with these women who eventually decided to meet their offender.
Two of the women, both of whom had been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for nine years, had expressed a definite need to meet their offender. One of the victims described her reasons to participate in a meeting with the offender:
To write the final chapter on this era of my life, I’ll need to meet with him, face-toface. I have dozens of questions that were never touched on in the justice process. I need to ask “why?” and “why me?” and I need to be open to his humanity, his pain, to see if we can find some new freedom for us both (…) “Just relax”, he said, “and you will survive”. Well someone didn’t survive – my twins lost their lives [victim was pregnant with twins during the assault and had a miscarriage a few weeks following the assault]. I want to see how he responds to the news of the loss of my babies. I want him to have to deal with my pain and his responsibility for the consequences (Gustafson, 1997: 11).
Both victims had expressed being able to move on with their lives, and as stated by Gustafson, it was a therapeutic experience. One of the victims stated:
“I have my music back” (Gustafson, 1997: 12). During the attack, she had accidentally turned on the clock radio and after the attack she was unable to listen to any type of music broadcast, whether it was on the radio or in the background in a supermarket, which she would have to leave. She also mentioned being able to sleep for the first time between three and five in the morning (the attack occurred at 4:00 a.m.) following the mediation with the offender.
Although we cannot draw any conclusions from these two experiences, they do reveal that even among very serious crimes, like sexual assault, some victims feel the need to meet their offender. An important question is when and how to offer victims the opportunity to participate in restorative justice programs. In these examples, it was the victims who approached the mediation service in Langley. When a victim is ready to meet the offender, mediation can help him or her overcome the trauma of crime. It can provide victims with a sense of closure and enable them to move on.
Compared to less serious offences, there are relatively few restorative justice programs available for victims of violent crimes. The available evidence is largely anecdotal, and systematic program evaluations are not available. Nevertheless, the available research does suggest that there is a group of victims of violent crimes who are interested in restorative justice programs. These victims, like the victims of less serious offences, want to confront the offender with the consequences of his or her behaviour, to ask questions, and to seek an apology. For these victims, meeting the offender can provide them with a sense of closure, enabling them to put the event behind them and to move on. The programs must be highly sensitive to victims’ needs and offer counselling both before and after a meeting with the offender. Moreover, they must be flexible so that program workers can tailor a response that fits the victims’ needs. Specifically, programs should offer victims more than just direct mediation. In a flexible program, victims might choose indirect mediation, the exchange of letters or videos with offenders, or counselling in cases where the offender is unable and/or unwilling to engage in mediation.
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