Just Outcomes, LLP: Recentering justice on relationships

By Koren Wetmore | July 20th, 2015

Matthew Hartman, Aaron Lyons, and Catherine Bargen

Matthew Hartman, Aaron Lyons and Catherine Bargen – all 2008 master’s graduates of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding – are the principals in Just Outcomes LLP, based in British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

The headlines have faded, but the years have not dulled her grief. Now the young mother sits eye-to-eye with the driver who caused the death of her school-aged child. Their conversation doesn’t focus on forgiveness or serve to expedite some criminal process. Instead, it creates a space for two human beings to express lingering emotions and somehow heal.

And, surprisingly, it was the driver who requested the meeting.

“That was the first time the mother felt she had her voice heard meaningfully,” says Aaron Lyons, who facilitates victim-offender dialogues in his role as restorative justice facilitator for Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives near Vancouver, Canada. “It was no longer about who took her daughter’s life; it was simply about her healing journey. The process was also therapeutic for the woman driver serving a prison sentence.”

For the two women, that meeting brought healing and movement toward a sense of “justice.”

In the aftermath of violence or harm, the human heart cries out for a just response. Yet that can mean different things to different people depending on their circumstance and culture. Guiding others to explore and discover their personal definition of “justice” lies at the core of a new venture launched by Lyons, Catherine Bargen and Matthew Hartman, all 2008 master’s graduates of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

Their firm, Just Outcomes, LLP, (justoutcomesconsulting.com), helps communities and organizations develop just responses to harmful actions or situations. Defining those responses starts with determining what justice looks like for the people involved.

“We want to invite people to think creatively about justice issues in their personal relationships, their workplace and their communities,” says Bargen, who also works as restorative justice coordinator for British Columbia’s Ministry of Justice. “Our passion is to use processes and create systems that help support relationships for good outcomes rather than limiting justice to the criminal justice arena.”

Starting one-on-one

For example, when a falling-out between two 14-year-old girls at a Langley, British Columbia, middle school led to alienation of one girl and divisions in their social group, Bargen and a restorative justice team went to work. They met with each girl and discovered that both wanted a chance to talk about the harm done. So Bargen facilitated a meeting with the girls.

“At first it was very tense,” she says. “They started out accusing each other, but eventually we reached a place where they were able to remind one another of their initial friendship, and they admitted that they missed each other. They were able to repair their relationship and walked out of the room arm-in-arm.”

Years later, Bargen wrote a reference letter for one of the girls, who felt inspired to become a youth mediator and to pursue a teaching career as a result of the restorative experience. “These processes can be extremely powerful,” Bargen says.

The idea for Just Outcomes emerged while the three friends pursued their master’s in conflict transformation at CJP. United by a passion for justice issues, they embraced a vision inspired by their mentor, Howard Zehr, who encouraged a collaborative approach to justice that focuses on people’s needs in the aftermath of a harm.

“Howard’s influence was quite profound on all three of us,” says Lyons. “He envisioned a time when we would no longer talk about justice by qualifying it with adjectives like ‘restorative,’ but instead simply do justice and that it would be restorative in nature.”

Six years passed as the three CJP alumni went on to fruitful careers, while slowly refining their vision for Just Outcomes through a process they dub “a slow boil.” They held monthly Skype calls, mostly to chat about their work and maintain their ever-deepening friendship, but also to take small steps forward on their dream. Finally, in 2014, they felt ready to balance a consulting firm alongside their individual careers.

Their combined skills, knowledge and experience enable Just Outcomes to tackle justice issues in almost any group.

Bringing rich experiences

Bargen has worked with youth in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with First Nations members in culturally responsive crime prevention, and with students and staff in school-based mediation programs. Lyons’ background includes youth justice work in New Zealand, victim-offender mediation, intercultural peacebuilding, and the development and implementation of training programs. Hartman has implemented restorative justice practices and programs within the juvenile justice system, facilitated victim-offender dialogues, and helped communities strengthen their capacity to respond to juvenile crime.

The three are also armed with the confidence that comes from witnessing the positive results produced through a collaborative, respectful approach.

In Hartman’s work as restorative justice coordinator for the Clackamas County Juvenile Department in Oregon City, Oregon, he has seen firsthand how restorative principles and values can transform justice systems. Traditionally, many criminal justice systems contact victims of juvenile crime with a focus on information gathering and advising victims of their legal rights, rather than considering victims’ needs. However, today through the Clackamas County department’s Victims Impact Program, victims are contacted by a coordinator who acknowledges the harm done, expresses empathy and focuses on providing support.

“We formed the whole program around the needs we know many victims have after they’ve been harmed – information, acknowledgement, a need to have a voice, and the need to have a part in determining the outcome of the case,” Hartman explains.

The juvenile department also started a phone outreach to crime victims.

“In that phone call, we don’t start out with ‘Here’s what you need to know.’ We start with ‘How are you doing?’” he says. “We still provide information about their rights and all the legal stuff that’s necessary, but we start on a relational basis, which is informed by a restorative justice framework.”

Given the variety and the necessity of justice work, Bargen, Hartman and Lyons feel inspired by the promise of healthy, human interactions.

“When those who have caused harm and those who have been harmed come together, and you see their resilience and their capacity for empathy in situations that seem unthinkable, you realize it’s an honor to witness and support people in such a transformative engagement,” says Hartman. “As a society, we’re recognizing that the old way of doing things isn’t meeting our needs. So we’re excited to explore what other systems and ways of being may be more meaningful for people.”