“I just want to know why they did this… and for them to say that they are sorry.” In the late 1990s victims of crimes often expressed these basic needs to me during my work as an assistant prosecutor. But while I could prosecute offenders and obtain convictions, I could not give victims these two things.
Around the same time, I first learned about “restorative justice” — a different way to address criminal wrongdoing. For example, restorative justice facilitates meetings between criminal and victim. While this then-new approach appeared to provide greater potential for victims to have their needs met, I was skeptical at first. I was concerned that introducing such techniques might result in making things easier for the offender, or would not adequately protect the victim.
After watching “Meeting with a Killer” (a documentary easily found and freely available online), I began to understand the potential. In this moving film, a mother met with the man who murdered her daughter. The mother and her granddaughter requested the meeting and I was surprised to witness how much these survivors benefited from it. And having the meeting did not impact the murderer’s sentence.
The victim-offender conference or dialogue is just one restorative justice technique. Another process often employed is the “talking circle.” Based on processes used by Indigenous American peoples to structure discussions, the talking circle structures the conversation by restricting the speakers to speaking one at a time around the circle. Talking circles have been used in American and Canadian legal processes in situations involving the re-entry of offenders to a community, in sentencing, and in creating structure for meetings on child dependency matters and remedial action for juvenile offenders.
Many states now include restorative justice processes in their statutory framework to address criminal and quasi-criminal wrongdoing. In child abuse and neglect matters, states such as Virginia, Colorado and Texas employ Family Group Decision Making where a collaborative team of family members, friends, and professionals participate to develop a plan to best meet the needs of the family. Hawaii and Vermont include restorative justice in the process when an offender is released from incarceration. States such as Massachusetts provide specific funding and guidance to permit a more restorative approach for juvenile offenders.
While West Virginia has only recently passed legislation authorizing restorative justice in some situations involving juveniles, restorative processes have been employed more broadly on a case-by-case basis. For example, I have facilitated victim-offender conferences in Morgan and Berkeley Counties and have worked with victims who participated in a conference in Jefferson County. Both victims and offenders report being satisfied by the process. In one situation, the offender apologized and voluntarily paid restitution in excess of what the victim requested.
While the victim-offender conference may not be successful in all situations, it can provide that opportunity for the victim to find out what happened and for the offender to seek forgiveness. Usually, this type of process is suitable only when the offender is accepting responsibility for the wrongdoing and the victim is willing to participate in the process.
To learn more about restorative justice, one starting point is the book Changing Lenses by Dr. Howard Zehr who is often called the “grandfather” of this field. Perhaps indicating the growing interest in this topic in the Mountain State, Dr. Zehr was among the experts and practitioners, myself included, who recently participated in Reimagining Justice in West Virginia, a conference focused on the potential for restorative justice in West Virginia.
On November 19-20, West Virginians will come together to explore the potential for restorative justice in the Mountain State. This free online conference, held over two days, will feature two early proponents of restorative justice, Howard Zehr and Kay Pranis, as well as lawyer and Observer contributor Brenda Waugh. Registration information is available here.
Brenda Waugh, MA JD, is a lawyer/ mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.By Brenda Waugh