Restorative justice and victim services collaboration

My wife and I just returned from another lovely visit to New Zealand – my 8th since 1994. When we arrived at the AUT (Auckland University of Technology) apartment where we have stayed the last few years, Patrice, the manager, handed us the keys to our apartment and said, “Welcome home.” In fact, next to Virginia, the “land of the long white cloud” does feel like home.

I had a number of energizing engagements coordinated by AUT’s Restorative Justice Centre. The last engagement was a keynote for the national Victim Support Conference, held in Wellington. I had been asked to speak about victims’ justice needs, how restorative justice seeks to address them, and how the restorative justice and victim support communities could connect better with one another. I was encouraged by the group’ enthusiasm for engaging with restorative justice. In fact, in at least one area in the South Island, such collaboration has already begun between youth justice and victim support.The question in New Zealand now is how to move this forward in both the youth justice and adult justice spheres.

Such collaboration is absolutely critical, not only in New Zealand but also in the U.S. and other places where restorative justice has been implemented.  Restorative justice, if it is true to its goals and principles, offers important options for victims that otherwise seem unattainable.  But true collaboration with victims and victim supporters is critical for restorative justice’s future.  Without it, I suspect restorative justice may be doomed: at worst to becoming another passing fad, at best to becoming one more program for offenders that has little relevance to victims.

In 1999-2002 some of us in the U.S. conducted a “listening project” to determine victim advocates’ perceptions of and experiences with restorative justice. We found serious concerns as well as some hopeful signs. The results pointed to the need for increased dialog and collaboration between the two communities. That need  today is as great or greater than ever.

Restorative justice is intended to make victims and their needs a priority – not the only priority, but a central one.  To do that, practitioners and programs must be truly victim-sensitive.  Unless we deeply and constantly engage with victim  perspectives, we are likely to be insensitive to the language, the approaches, the barriers that turn people off.

I hear frequent complaints from restorative justice practitioners that victims are not participating, not engaging with their programs.  I often suspect it is because of hidden barriers that only victims and victim advocates are likely to catch and address and because there aren’t victim advocates on board to support victims through.

In one state where I was on the listening team, victim participation in what were termed restorative justice programs was very low. The victim service community was blunt in its assessment: participation was low because programs weren’t victim-friendly. That was occurring because victims and victim service representatives were not being invited to be part of the process, the training or oversight of these programs. They felt that restorative justice practitioners were over-confident of their ability to sense and address victim issues. I suspect their assessment was accurate.

The answer, I believe, is not only dialog but true cooperation. We in the restorative justice community have much to offer victims. I’m convinced, though, that in order to deliver on this we must partner with victim advocacy and support groups.

Restorative justice needs victim advocates; those who advocate for victims need what restorative justice offers. The dialog that must accompany cooperation will often be difficult and we won’t always agree, but let’s give it our best.

11 comments on “Restorative justice and victim services collaboration”

  1. Catherine Bargen says:

    Go Howard! Just the inspiration and encouragement I needed right now.

  2. Charito Calvachi-Mateyko says:

    Dear Howard:

    Your words come to serve me so well in the Human Right International Conference where I am invited as well to present on Nov 4 at the Universidad de Lima (besides the Wordwide Conference on Restorative Juvenile Justice here in Lima). The Minister of Justice is coming for it. I will stress your words on Victim cooperation.
    Circles of Peace for victim should be included and expected to be part of a RJ program. I agree that if victims were be given more attention, they will be more open to it.

    Blessings to you,


  3. Criminal Defense Lawyer says:

    I am a criminal defense lawyer who has attended a number of victim outreach and RJ trainings over the past decade as part of the capital defense work that I do. In that time, I’ve been fortunate to hear victim-survivors speak of their experiences, to learn about defense-initiated victim outreach, and its origins in RJ. This has led me on a wonderful journey that has taught me much about RJ and brought me to this informative forum. And, yet, I am not surprised that victims are slow to participate in RJ.

    My sense is that many victim-survivors of violent crime — no matter how distant the crime or the amount of therapy they’ve had — continue to suffer from the trauma of the crime. I am always struck by how victim-survivors seem to go through the Kubler-Ross stages before our eyes when they discuss the crime and its effects on their lives. It seems to me — and I write this without any disapproval — that the lasting effects of this trauma seem to make it extremely difficult for many victim-survivors to take that step towards understanding offender needs and respond to them within the RJ rubric.

    Some of this, I think, must be a survival mechanism — i.e., if you demonize or push away the other who caused you harm, you prevent that other from revictimizing you. And, certainly, the decision to place victim assistance coordinators within prosecutor offices speaks to how this instinctual response plays out across the criminal justice system.

    And, yet, if I understand RJ, part of the process is to seek to understand the causes of the offender’s criminal behavior and to work towards healing the offender and the community. To do this, we seek to understand that violence often is preceded by years of conditions that are deeply scarring in their own right. These include grinding poverty, outrageously bad parenting, nightmarish abuse (physical, sexual, and substance), all of which most likely went unprosecuted and unremediated. And if offenders didn’t experience these conditions, they likely are mentally ill and unable to obtain effective treatment within their communities due to stigma, indigence or sheer unavailability of such services.

    In other words, there’s a world of pain out there. And it’s got to be hard for victims to acknowledge an offender’s pain when their own burns so intensely.

    To my mind, RJ offers the best hope for bridging the painful chasms that violence creates, and I do hope that victim-survivors will choose to participate in this movement. But I also understand why it may be difficult for them to do so right now.

  4. R McVey says:

    First of all, I appreciate the prison and jail ministries conducted by the Mennonites. However, I chose to work in a prosecutor’s office. I work on behalf of victims. Victim-survivors are those people whose loved one has died because of the offender. For them to reach out to understand the offender to bring about the healing process for the offender is an unreasonable burden to place on them. They want justice for their loved one first. They must find healing before they can bear to consider the circumstances of the offender. To try to force this issue on the victim-survivor is cruel, unethical and re-victimizes them. I ask you to keep one thing in mind, the Samaritan attended the wounds of the victim.

  5. Howard Zehr says:

    Thanks, R McVey, for your comment. I agree with you about the priorities for victim-survivors. However, I’m not talking here about prison and jail ministries. Rather, my focus is on restorative justice approaches. In my perspective, this is about addressing the harms and needs caused by crime, holding offenders accountable for the harm they have done, and providing opportunities for involvement, especially on the part of victims. We’re not asking victims to reach out and understand offenders; rather, restorative justice should be about providing new options for victims. To do that properly requires restorative justice service providers to work closely with victim assistance.

  6. Marti Anderson says:

    I have worked with crime victims for 34 years and was so excited when RJ rolled around in Iowa. There have been many steps forward in the criminal justice arena with RJ: Mediation, Victim Impact Statements, Victim/Offender dialogue, etc.

    I have been on RJ and reentry committees. Because the public safety and offender rehabilitation issues facing RJ are so overwhelming, the needs of victims is often an afterthought. Little energy and even less resources are dedicated to victim justice and recovery.

    Victim advocates have so little time and money that they cannot be expected to sit on committees as tokens. Many RJ practitioners demonstrate only rudimentary knowledge of victim service and the needs of victims. They often assume that victims are permanently “damaged” and seek only retribution. In fact, the greater balance of crime victims, while permanently changed, do find their “new normal” and even new strength through survival. A victim’s primary concern often is that the offender be held accountable regardless of the injustices in his or her life.

    Offenders come to the system self-centered, either as a developmental self-protective stance or from a personality disorder. They must be made to understand the damage they have caused to others. They must learn empathy and restraint for their wants and impulses. And they must be held accountable for their damages — the damage they don’t have to pay for, victims have to pay for.

    I believe that crime victim advocates will come to RJ when they see a real committment to victim justice. Victim justice includes assuring that the resources for victim rights and services is as adequate as the resources for criminal justice.

    It costs a great deal to rehabilitate and support an offender in the effort to make them a better person and citizen. Part of that cost should be the needs of crime victims. If crime victim services recieved only 1% of the resources devoted to criminal justice, we could build a very effective victim service field.

    Don’t give up on victim advocates. We know that the offender must be tended to and rehabilitated. We will help as soon as we have the resources to meet victim needs and expand our work to the bigger picture of justice for all.

  7. Kathleen Tofall says:

    Ditto Marti! As a victim advocate in a prosecutor’s office, our opportunities to assist victims who may choose to participate in a RJ program are often limited by the restrictions of our funding source or by lack of time and resources. In Missouri, we have both a statewide coalition that has included victim service providers, and in St. Louis, we have a regional collaboration. The victim perspective is included in our training and education efforts. My role is to continue to be voice for the actual victims who are not at the table as RJ programs and resources emerge in our state. My bottom line is to listen to victims who must be allowed to determine their own healing path in their own timeframe.

  8. Marti, I’m wondering if we ever crossed paths during my volunteer work w/ Corrections in Iowa (2006-2008). I was involved in two programs during that time: Circles of Support, and a creative writers’ workshop. The former was a re-entry program for ex-offenders, essentially providing mentoring and a support network, and had no connection to victim services groups that I was aware of.

    In the case of the writers’ workshop, the one I co-facilitated did have a real degree of involvement in the planning and participation phases, which I think really helped both phases. I agree that victims shouldn’t be expected to sit on committees as “tokens,” but actual participation, particularly in arts-based programs could, I think, be very transformative for both victims and offenders. I saw it happen in the writers’ workshop, and it was even a transformative experience for me, the community volunteer. In fact, it’s part of what sent me to the program that Howard teaches in now, at EMU.

    The other issue you speak of sounds like, rightly, a critique of the fundamental mechanisms of our justice system in the U.S. and the night-and-day discrepancy in terms of distribution of resources by the system for offenders vs. victims. Howard co-authored/edited a book with Barb Toews called “Critical Issues in Restorative Justice,” and one of the chapters proposed a parallel system of justice for victims, which would have resources balanced with the traditional offender-oriented system, and have programs available that were appropriate based on the unique justice needs of victims. This idea thrilled me to no end, regardless of how huge an undertaking such a system would be to design, legislate, implement, and maintain. What interested me about it, though, was that RJ would essentially work as connective tissue between these two “limbs” of the justice systems.

  9. Mary Roche says:

    I have found, in my experience as a victim service provider in corrections (Iowa), as well as a victim advocate and as a survivor of violent crime, that our RJ-based programs are victim-centered – and victims are not simply “tokens” at the table. Rather, they are active participants in our programs and also provide invaluable input into our programs and practices.

    The misconception about RJ is that many people associate it with programs that sometimes have very limited victim involvement. When RJ principles are the foundation of our work, victim issues are central. RJ is about victim safety, finding answers to questions, empowering them through information and active participation, etc. – and if that means no contact at all with offenders, that can still be restorative.

    Our Iowa RJ-based programs are NOT solely based on meeting offender needs and I am frustrated by programs that identify themselves as “restorative,” when, at best, they are simply offender-based with community involvement and, at worst, “use” victims to promote offender healing or understanding. I am very pleased with our programs in Iowa because we do focus on meeting victims’ needs.

    For me personally, restorative justice has been the foundation of my healing from violent crime. I am very fortunate that Iowa had a victim/offender dialogue program and victim impact classes/panels programs. When I read Howard’s book, “Changing Lenses,” I immediately felt understood and validated. And, truly, I am fortunate to have had RJ programs made available to me – that is what drives me to ensure they are available for other crime victims.

  10. Janet Bakke says:

    Hi Howard,

    This is once again a very fascinating dialogue for me. As a Survival Victim, I have searched many avenues to help me understand both my offender and his reasons for offending. Healing and Peace for me were in my Face to Face through the VOMP program with Dave Gustafson and Sandi Bergen and through my communications and studies of you and your work. I have also been a member of a Victim Advisory Council for over a year now, and truly believe that in order for both RJ and Victim Services to work together for the better of Victims and Offenders, we need to understand both sides. Understanding is difficult when you are a Victim because it is hard to have empathy and compassion for an Offender and I think in some ways, it may be the same the other way around. I found it really helped me to find peace when I found out why my offender did what he did and the only way that happened for me was through the RJ programs. It sometimes seems like a “Catch 22” but, the small breakthroughs that I see are becoming more often and considerably larger. You Howard, are truly a gift from God in helping us all to have a better understanding and for that I can never thank you enough. I only wish that I could find a way to help more Victims and Offenders in joining me to come to Peace with what happened and to move on to Understanding. I truly believe With Understanding comes Peace.


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