I first became aware of restorative justice when Terry O’Connell, an Australian police officer spoke at an event near Philadelphia in 1994.
He described how he had been inspired by New Zealand’s family group conference process to find a way to divert troubled young people from involvement in the criminal justice system.
Having never seen a New Zealand conference, he designed his own kind of conference.
His first experiments with the process led him to write a script with a set of open-ended questions for police officers to use in bringing together young offenders, their victims and their family and friends, to discuss how everyone was affected by the young person’s behavior.
The script serves as a verbal boundary for police officers who might be tempted to intrude into the discussion.
The structured questions encourage participants to talk candidly about their own experiences and thereby foster a shared understanding of how everyone has been affected by an incident.
At the event O’Connell told a story about an unusual restorative justice conference that truly moved me.
A police sergeant returned to his rural community in the Australian outback to a vandalism incident that had caused a local uproar.
The offenders were four black kids who lived in the town or at the nearby Aboriginal reserve.
They had broken into the building occupied by an all-white women’s organization and trashed the interior and its contents.
Having just attended training for a new response to wrongdoing called “conferencing,” the officer saw the situation as a perfect opportunity to put his new skills into practice.
He especially hoped that the conference would address the heightened racial tension that was a by-product of the incident.
He first contacted the offenders and invited them, along with their families and friends, to meet with the vandalism victims “to find out what happened, see how people had been affected and decide how to repair the harm.”
He borrowed phrases he had just heard at the training to explain the process to the potential participants.
When the offenders and their families accepted his offer of the conference, he then invited all of the women victims and their respective families and friends to participate.
The day of the conference was warm and sunny, typical of days in the Australian outback.
This was fortunate because there were so many people in the offenders’ and victims’ groups that the conference had to be held outdoors.
The chairs were arranged in a large circle, with the victims’ group to the police officer’s left and the offenders’ group to the right.
The officer began by reminding all the participants that the conference was voluntary and that they could leave at any time.
If the victims and offenders could reach an agreement, the matter could be settled then and there.
The officer went around the group and introduced everyone.
Then he asked each participant a series of questions.
First the offenders were asked to tell what happened.
The young people were very forthcoming in admitting what they did and in expressing regret, which immediately reduced some of the bad feelings among the victims.
When the young people were asked by the facilitating police officer, “What were you thinking about at the time?” they frankly admitted their resentment of the white people in their community, a prevalent feeling among black youth but one which was rarely expressed aloud in the presence of white people.
When the officer asked “Who do you think has been affected?” they had only a very limited view of who and how others had been affected by their wrongdoing, as is usually the case with young offenders.
Then the women whose building had been vandalized related how the vandalism had affected them.
They told the boys that they understood their resentment of white people, but they also admitted how uncomfortable and sometimes frightened they felt to be a small group of white people in a largely black community.
Just like the black youths’ resentment, the white women’s feelings of fear and discomfort had rarely been expressed aloud in the presence of black people.
Some of the victims also expressed anger, wondering if maybe the boys thought that white people could afford to repair the damage and that it would be no big deal.
The most important issue, they explained, was not money; rather, the vandalism increased their fears and made them feel unsafe.
As the police officer worked his way around the group, husbands, children and friends expressed similar feelings of fear and anger.
As the boys and their families listened respectfully, the intensity of the victims’ group’s feelings gradually subsided.
The boys’ families responded very sympathetically to the victims.
They apologized and expressed shame for what their children had done and promised it would not happen again.
They also seemed genuinely surprised to hear about the fears and discomfort of the white minority in the community, having always felt that the white folks had the upper hand.
They understood how the vandalism had intensified those fears and wanted to help make things right.
By the time the conference turned to the issue of how to repair the harm, everyone easily agreed to work together in the upcoming weekend to repair the damage to the building.
Both groups had gained insight into each others’ feelings.
The young people now realized that they had not only damaged the property of a few people but also had affected a great many other people very deeply, including their own families.
The two groups, feeling separate from one another at the outset of the conference, now merged into one community.
In the informal period after the conference, when refreshments were served, clusters of black and white people engaged in animated conversation.
The vandalism incident had provided an opportunity for healing among people who had lived together for all of their lives without expressing their true feelings.
In the safety of the conference, they had talked in a real way about how they felt toward one another and had taken significant steps toward mutual understanding.
Some of the influential black people who lived on the reserve told the policeman how reluctant they were to call the police when there was a problem.
They feared offenders would simply be locked away.
They suggested that other crimes might be handled through a conference as a better response to problems on the reserve.
But I have saved the most ironic aspect of this story for last— the fact that the four vandals were only 5, 6, 7 and 8 years old.
Under Australian law, the police officer had no real jurisdiction with children under 10 years old, since they were not considered responsible for their own actions.
Having just learned how to facilitate a conference, however, he recognized that the process would allow him to deal with the bad feelings the incident had created in the community, even though he could not formally charge the offenders with a crime.
Had there been a number 1 in front of the boys’ ages, had they been 15, 16, 17 and 18 years old, in the normal course of the criminal justice system all four would have been charged with crimes.
All of them would have gone to court and none of them would have gained the kind of insight and empathy that they acquired through the conference.
Black and white people in the community would have been left with their anger, fears and mutual resentments.
His story impacted me deeply and reminded me how crime is not simply about behavior, but more importantly, it’s about relationships.
Most people assume victims feel better when someone goes to jail.
But that’s not what really helps the most.
What helps most, it seems, is a conversation.
When people can have challenging conversations in a safe setting like a restorative conference, it helps victims face their demons and reduces their trauma.
In “Facing the Demons,” the 1999 Australian best documentary award-winning film, O’Connell is shown organizing and facilitating a restorative conference four years after the murder of Michael Marslew, a nineteen-year-old shot point blank in the head during an armed robbery of a Pizza Hut by four young men.
Two of the incarcerated offenders volunteered to participate, along with Michael’s parents, friends and workmates at the Pizza Hut, as well as the mother of one of the incarcerated men.
A year after the conference Joan, Michael’s mother, spoke about the impact of the conference for her.
“I’ll tell you what it did do for me which is really unusual.
After Michael was killed, I couldn’t remember a lot of the years before.
I lost it.
It was as if the whole of my life started the night Michael was killed, and I couldn’t see anything before that…
I think it was all the awful thoughts that were in my head just blocked out all the nice things.
And I got that back.
It’s gradually come back.
I can remember all those good bits.
It’s just like somebody had come through with a broom and swept away all the things that had been preying on my mind for four years.”
Michael’s friend Sarah, was finally able to restart her life after spending four and a half years largely immobilized.
Two weeks after the conference she went a tour of the American Southwest and returned to Australia to resume her university studies that she had abandoned after Michael’s death.
Joanne, the offender’s mother who came to the conference, was embraced by Joan who thanked her for her courage in attending.
Joanne said later about the victim’s mother:
“When I went to the court, Joan was crying. And I just felt I’d love to go and put my arms around her and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ But there was someone else with her anyway. And I thought she’d probably brush me aside because I’m the mother of one of the boys involved. I was quite happy to be involved because I thought at the time, even beforehand, if ever I meet these people, that I’d love to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry you lost your son. I’m sorry that my son was involved.”
Restorative practices represent a revolution by conversation.
The conversation restores relationships and, as with the two mothers, Joan and Joanne, it fostered a relationship that hadn’t even existed before.
We need to have safe settings where we can have those difficult conversations.
In his 1971 landmark essay, “Conflicts as Property,” sociologist Nils Christie argued that judges and lawyers steal our right to resolve our own conflicts.
Victims are removed from the conflict as soon as the offender is arrested and the process then becomes depersonalized — a crime against the state — with the court making decisions for victims, thereby eliminating the opportunity for them to participate in any meaningful way.
Restorative justice conferences restore that opportunity.
The conference process that O’Connell developed resembled the talking circles and other conversational interventions that we already used in our own CSF Buxmont schools and group homes in Pennsylvania.
In fact when O’Connell first visited one of our schools in 1995 he remarked, “You
are running a restorative conference all day long.”
I decided to bring O’Connell’s conference process to North America and I chose the name “Real Justice” for marketing purposes.
O’Connell and his colleagues provided the first Real Justice training in March 1995 in Lansdale, Pennsylvania — and the rest is history.
Real Justice established a global network that has since trained tens of thousands of practitioners around the world and which eventually led to my founding the International Institute for Restorative Practices, an accredited master’s degree-granting graduate school.
Evaluations of Real Justice conferences by various researchers for various offenses in various countries, have all reported that more than ninety percent of victims, offenders and their supporters express both satisfaction and a sense of fairness with the process.
Very rarely do multiple studies confirm such a universally positive result.
Other research done under the auspices of the Smith Institute in the United Kingdom indicated that restorative conferences may reduce re-offending.
Despite such positive outcomes, most criminal justice systems have largely ignored restorative justice.
The number of criminal cases involving restorative justice around the world is small.
For me the most exciting research results dealt with reducing post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of crime, which often persists for years after the criminal incident has taken place.
While criminal justice systems struggle to reduce crime, they now have the ability to reliably reduce harm.
Caroline Angel at the University of Pennsylvania studied the effects of restorative conferences on burglary and robbery victims in a U.K. based experiment.
She stated, “The most striking thing was that conferences reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
And she added, “What you have here is a one-time program that’s effective in producing benefits for the majority of people.”
So, imagine the criminal justice system fostering safe conversations that are satisfying and fair for all participants and that reduce post traumatic stress in victims.
That would be a new reality that is fully within our grasp.
We just have to do it.