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It’s painful to face someone and apologize when you know you really screwed up–so much so that some people can’t, or won’t, do it.  But most of us know that only an apology will give us any peace, especially if it is accepted graciously.  Better to face the person you’ve hurt and fess up than have the memory of your wrongdoing keep stinging you. 

A group in Missouri is working to improve our justice system by applying that bit of common sense. Restorative Justice arranges for criminal offenders to face their victims, apologize, and hear what the victims have to say about what happened.  The offender may also hear what restitution the victim wants from him.

Quite a few jurisdictions use such conferences in juvenile cases.  C.J. Larkin, who teaches mediation at Wash. U. Law School, oversees them regularly.  Typically, she tells an offender before they face the victim that he is expected to admit what he did, say he’s sorry, listen to the victim, and be willing to make restitution.

Larkin described a case where three teenage girls went for a ride in a stolen car.  They didn’t steal it, but they knew it was stolen, and the car was damaged before it was returned to its owner.  Two of the girls eventually faced a restorative justice hearing with the victim. 

Larkin said that the first girl was not particularly articulate, and Larkin had some doubts that the girl would do an adequate job of apologizing, but that turned out not to be a problem.  The girl did fine in the conference.

The second girl was, by this time, in college–quite an articulate young woman–so Larkin was not concerned about her ability to offer a clear apology.  Wrong.  When asked what she had to say to the victim, Girl Two said, “I don’t want to talk about it.  If she wants to ask me questions, she can.”  At which point, Larkin asked to talk to the girl in the hall.

When they were alone, the mediator told the girl that she knew she was to admit what she’d done and say she was sorry.  “Are you giving the impression you’re sorry?” Larkin asked her.  The girl replied that she was so embarrassed about what she’d done that she didn’t want to talk about it.  Larkin told her to simply explain that to the victim–which the girl did.  The rest of the conference was fine.  Both girls were required to help pay for the damages to the car.  And presumably Girl Two learned a lesson about offering apologies–and about not screwing up in the first place.

Don’t misunderstand:  such conferences don’t necessarily take the place of prison time.  In minor cases, particularly with juveniles, the offender restitution, apology, and community service may be sufficient.  If a teenager has torn up someone’s garden, for example, he may be required to work in that garden a certain number of hours to get it back in shape.

However, with more serious crimes, such conferences between victim and offender would not take the place of prison time, though they might help to determine the sentence.  Two advantages issue from such conferences.  

The first is that the victim isn’t left out of the proceedings.  In traditional criminal proceedings (retributive justice), the system hardly notices the harm done to the victim.  Instead, the focus is on what law has been broken, and the crime is considered a crime against the state.  The victim, if he’s included at all, is merely a prosecution witness and may be allowed to speak at sentencing.  Restorative Justice, on the other hand, gives the victim a chance to face the offender and hear a much needed apology.  (That’s if both parties agree to the conference.  Neither side is forced into it.)

The second advantage is that offenders are more likely to face their own culpability.  Too often, the traditional trial is a dance of motions and counter motions, often designed to keep relevant evidence from being presented so that the offender may get off on a technicality.  If he is convicted, he often allows himself to believe that “the system” railroaded him and indulges himself in feeling resentful about that.  But if he has faced his victim, admitted what he did, and apologized, then the prison time is atonement.

The Restorative Justice movement is gaining momentum worldwide.  Nina Balsam, Director of Restorative Justice in Missouri, says that this system of dealing with crimes began among Native Americans and the Maoris in New Zealand.  Now it’s gaining strength on every continent–well, not Antarctica. 

In Missouri, 14 out of 45 juvenile courts use restorative justice conferences.  But Balsam would like to see it adopted statewide.  She says that prosecutors are a tough sell as far as adopting these techniques, and so is the legislature.  Attempts to pass a law mandating the use of restorative justice in the juvenile system failed to get a hearing in the last two legislative sessions.  Her group will try again this year.

Those in authority who resist these programs don’t know what they’re missing.  Studies on them done in other states show that offenders who apologize are more likely to honor restitution agreements (on average 19 out of 20 comply with the terms of the agreements), that recidivism is reduced by 74%, and that PTSD is markedly reduced among victims.

If you’d like to know more:

The St. Louis Area Restorative Justice Collaboration and the Missouri Restorative Justice Coalition are sponsoring a showing of the award-winning film Beyond Conviction at The Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road , 7:00 pm.  The showing is tonight, October 13th.

Beyond Conviction tells the moving story of three crime victims on a journey toward healing and resolution. The film follows participants in a pioneering program run by the state of Pennsylvania in which victims of the most violent crimes meet face-to-face with their perpetrators. Free and open to the public.