Good and bad victims?

Is a victim of crime who values restorative justice welcome in the restorative justice community only if s/he “works for” forgiveness?

How is a victim of crime who believes in healing for both victim and offender, but continues to struggle with her/his understanding of justice, supported by restorative justice groups and associations? 

Are victims invited to the restorative justice dialogue even when they are far from knowing what healing means – but yearn to enter this place?

If a victim does not understand or believe in restorative justice, is s/he excluded from the dialogue?

Does rj have room for victims who are in the throes of deep and savage grief, feeling that they are somehow “bad” because they are not “chosen” or “holy” or “healed” enough to belong to what can often seem an elite group who “know” about living life after crime?

Margot Van Sluytman, whose father was murdered, has dedicated her life to the healing of both victims and offenders.  Recently she emailed me these questions after attending a restorative justice conference. They are important questions.

It is tempting for restorative justice advocates, consciously or not, to differentiate between “good” and “bad victims.” Good victims are those who are ready to forgive and reconcile; bad victims are those who are angry, punitive and unforgiving.

“How do we react to such victims?” asks Heather Strang in her essay, “Is Restorative Justice Imposing Its Agenda on Victims?” (Critical Issues in Restorative Justice, Zehr & Toews, eds.).  “Probably most often by dreading and discouraging the one and encouraging and welcoming the other,” she observes.  Strange goes on to suggest that “bad” is often a function of the emotional harm they have suffered and that they may have the most to gain from an encounter.

An attitude of forgiveness is a lovely thing, and a restorative encounter that results in some measure of forgiveness or reconciliation is wonderful. However, I would suggest that this is not a goal of restorative justice and is not a measure of whether an approach qualifies as restorative justice.  For me, restorative justice is about addressing harms and needs, and helping those who have offended to understand and accept the resulting obligations.  To the extent possible, it implies a collaborative and dialogical process.  As long as an encounter can be engaged in respectfully and safely for all participants, whether a victim is angry or forgiving is not the decisive factor.  And in an encounter, the choice to forgive and reconcile is totally up to the participants; forgiveness is not a measure of whether a restorative justice approach has occurred or is worthwhile.

It is important that we as practitioners welcome those who have been harmed into our midst, regardless of their orientation.  Restorative justice calls us to listen to their harms and to the extent we can, help them identify and address their needs, regardless of whether they are forgiving.  That, to my mind, is essential to being a restorative justice community.


10 comments on “Good and bad victims?”

  1. This was an interesting post to me as I view restorative processes as a place to hold conflict and don’t consider a victim as “good” or “bad” based on their feelings toward the offender or the event. I am quick to point out to our volunteers that just because someone is a victim does not always meant they are “likeable” which can present challenges, but I wouldn’t categorize that with where they are on the healing continuum in any way–more how they are as a human being in general. In fact, I suspect victims to be angry and believe the process offers an opportunity toward gained knowledge rather than a direct route to forgiveness. The latter is a very personal experience and may or may not be appropriate for many, or even possible. I find it interesting that there are expectations placed on victims at all. My primary expectation is that offenders take responsibility. Other than that, I just work to assure that no further harm will be caused to victims. I have never considered having expectations for them in the process. I wonder if I am not asking enough of the other participants in the process. Very thought provoking post. Thanks, Dr. Zehr!

  2. What often seems to occur at Restorative Justice Conferences and gatherings is a sense of deep camaraderie, not unwarranted of course. This is due to the fact that those who work in this area, with a large percentage working with offenders, with the inclusion of minute amounts of mediation work, gather and celebrate Restorative Justice, and the inroads, without thinking of victims who have had no support whatsoever; and to whom theory is light years away from their suffering. Victims who are not ebullient, who have not had any form of healing, due to a myriad of reasons, one important one being a severe shortage of concrete spaces and places and supports of them, are not asked to conferences, or classrooms to speak, listen, to hear. Perhaps viewed as too fragile, limited, lacking, in need of a deeper commitment to “feeling for the offender.”

    To repeat, I do not believe this is done because those who choose the speakers and sculpt the communities for Restorative Justice are cruel or unkind. I believe it is done because victims are hidden away, abandoned, feeling helpless, hopeless and betrayed. Always terrifying pariah, whose depth of sorrow and anger are not what Restorative Justice adherents wish to see. In an offender this can be justified, since they are the “bad guy” after all. Victims, as the “good guy,” has to have control.

    Because victims are behind invisible bars, often with unrecorded and unacknowledged life-sentences, we are mute. Silenced.

    There are no places to which we can go such as the places here in Canada that are available for offenders: JHS, EFry, and others, and no places that come to us such as: COSA, M2Ws, Prison Fellowships.

    Sustained funding is specifically used for and by those who work with offenders, because they are visible.

    My own journey with life from murder to healing, which I call Sawbonna, is akin to Restorative Justice, though I was offered nothing. Zero. And it was a stroke of grace that the man who murdered my Dad, read about my work, thirty years after the murder, and contacted me. For a time, Glen and I were as pariah by “official” Restorative Justice associations for we had not followed the “rules.” This affected neither of us, nor our commitment to sharing our story – NOT to tell other victims or offenders what they must do, but merely to plant a seed of hope, and a seed whereby more questions would be and will continue to be birthed; a seed whereby necessary exquisite articles as the one Howard would be written, inviting deepened and necessary dialogue.

    As the dialogue deepens about what Restorative Justice really means, I believe that more concrete places and spaces will be created for victims. Places and spaces they can go, while in /our life-sentences. Places and spaces at which to receive support, in both the practical, the psychological, and the spiritual, so that they too can accepted and accompanied in the company of those who teach, write, and work in this area. Inclusiveness is a must in order for Restorative Justice to truly be informed and balanced.

    Thank you Howard, for continuing with inclusiveness and kindred vision.

    Margot Van Sluytman.

  3. Sister Victorine Buser says:

    I always find comments by Margot Vsn Slytman informative and enlightening. She is truly dedicated to rj and eventually this movement will be successful in rehabilitating both the “bad” and the “good” victims. Sister Victorine

  4. Ann-Patricia says:

    Margot Van Slytman’s comment could not be truer and I thank you so much for expressing it.As a victim/survivor of a violent crime I have found its almost impossible to have a voice without bringing into play the emotions that surround being a victim/survivor. The paradox is that I have to run this crime by,unemotionally as if on a film, disconnected and happening to someone else.Re living it takes a heavy toll. There is nothing that really helps except to obtaining answers as to why.Years of my life were spent trying to find answers. For me restorative justice is the only glimmer of light on the horizon.I am not really sure why but its something I am putting my hope into. I have had no voice , I am unknown and on my own with no closure and working hard to overcome my constant fear. In RJ forums I feel talked about as a victim in the third person as if I am not really there and present as a victim at all. But this is only my perception of the situation because Im both fearful of being heard and not being heard. Im not meaning to judge harshly.Just saying what I think and not particularly well. And practitioners in the RJ movement are my lifeline because I see myself being part of this voice of change.

  5. Wanda Walle says:

    Having been on both sides of the spectrum to some degree, first as a victim of a violent home break in many years ago(and never knowing who this man was) and now having a son in prison for a violent crime I see the value of restorative justice. I believe when someone who has committed a crime has to look into the eyes of the friends and family of the person they have harmed or taken away of and vice versa and actually be able to communicate with each other, this in itself could bring healing which needs to happen in order to go forward in life.

  6. Wanda Walle says:

    Having been on both sides of the spectrum, first as a victim of a violent home break in many years ago(and never knowing who this man was) and now having a son in prison for a violent crime, I see the value of restorative justice. I believe when someone who has committed a crime has to look into the eyes of the friends and family of the person they have harmed or taken away of and vice versa and actually be able to communicate with each other, this in itself could bring healing which needs to happen in order to go forward in life.

  7. Lisa Rea says:

    Howard, this is a very important column you have written. I also appreciate the comments made by Margot Van Sluytman from Canada. These are the conclusions I have reached as well. I have been doing restorative justice since the ’90s and have worked with both crime victims and offenders. I have been increasingly concerned about an attitude sometimes held by restorative justice practitioners which I believe you describe here. I do not think that some feel they are “pushing” victims to forgive, or to reconcile, but often they are doing so whether they are conscious of it or not.

    I have been using the phrase victims-driven restorative justice for a number of years. Largely, I have urged this phrase to differentiate between those in the justice reform arena who are more offender oriented or offender driven in their approach to restorative justice. As I suggest to those who see restorative justice that way–restorative justice is always victims centered and victims driven. But additionally, those who somehow attempt to short-circuit the agonizing process that many, if not most, victims of violent crime experience after crime are making a mistake. One, it’s unfair to victims because if they choose restorative justice it is indeed a process. And two, victims might choose forgiveness, and might find themselves at some time reconcile with the offender; however, that is not the goal of restorative justice as you stated.

    Partly, I think these views are held by those seeking systemic reform of the justice system without a full understanding of the great value restorative justice holds. Since I come to this work as a public policy advocate and former legislative staff person so much of what happens in the “public square” is political. Crime is a very political topic: laws are made often due to the political winds and which way they are blowing. I say this as a way to explain why some advocates are in a hurry to get victims to forgive. They might genuinely hope that victims heal, and offenders as well through offender accountability, but many lack the patience to assist and support those in need of guidance and support.

    I am committed to working with all victims no matter where they are in their journey.

    Lisa Rea
    Restorative Justice International
    ~a global network @

  8. Ann-Patricia says:

    The issue of forgiveness for me is a difficult one and from my experiences comes at a cost to my emotional wellbeing. My reality is that forgiveness is a flat term that tells me all is well, I can move on with my life . Forgiveness means that one party forgives the other despite what happened.So heres the thing-do I forgive so this person can do it again ? To me,I cannot be blinded by forgiveness in this way.In an RJ conference I can see how the conference would allow the evolution towards forgiveness-if the offender is incarcerated-well and good-the victims are safe when they are behind bars . In cases where offenders are motivated to try and kill through sexual fantasy (such as in my case) the issue of forgiveness fills me with emotions i have difficulty articulating. How is it possible to forgive and put it behind me (forgive and forget) The next victim would not be so lucky.I met the night time face of this attacker. This was no low-life after money or on drugs.He knew EXACTLY what he was doing. By day he would not have behaved in this manner. He would have been a different person to cover up his personality-good looking,well dressed and unknown for his true nature.To be this way he would have needed to be a very good liar with an outside image that doesnt reflect the true nature of his depravity and it is my belief these offenders cannot be rehabilitated. They carry deceit as an art form,know how to manipulate people into believing they are not who they really are. In the system they would need careful conferencing to determine whether their remorse is real .They NEED to be incarcerated.Perhaps at some stage of my life I can understand what motivated my attacker but forgiveness is a trap that says all is well and it isnt- thats part of the deception. Having seen the true personality of my attacker what checks and balances allow me to believe that this person is capable of genuine remorse? I have learned to accept my life sentence but work very hard toward gaining my freedom, but until I have much more understanding there is no forgiveness. For the safety of their future victims ,should they ever be released,these offenders should NOT be forgiven.

  9. As a newcomer to RJ, I was drawn in by several stories of remarkable, even inconceivable, forgiveness. Like many viewers of these reconciliation and forgiveness stories on TV, I marveled at the grace of the crime victims and, frankly, felt deeply inadequate. I was certain I would not be capable of such generosity of spirit if I were to experience, for example, the murder of a loved one.

    Fortunately, I did not have to read the various RJ blogs and websites very long to learn that RJ practitioners tend not to expect forgiveness to emerge from victim-offender conferences. When it happens, it is a deeply gratifying experience, but when it does not, this is no indication of hard-heartedness or lack of commitment on the part of the victim. I found this insight very encouraging. With this understanding, I came to see RJ as a method and philosophy thoroughly grounded in the real world, where pain and harm can be overwhelming, where emotions cannot simply be willed away. To be sure, RJ still strikes me as both idealistic and inspiring, but it does not encourage magical thinking or made-for-TV resolutions.

    I have often wondered what factors predispose or persuade a crime victim to consider participating in a restorative process, and at what point in the recovery process the victim might be most open to RJ.

    This posting by Howard Zehr, and the thoughtful responses above, are at once sobering and inspiring. Thank you all.

  10. Tammy D says:

    I greatly appreciate all that’s shared on this blog, and believe that everyone’s willingness to acknowledge the critiques of RJ in such a respectful, consistently fluid, and open manner speaks to the very nature of our movement! I also feel that the RJ practitioners I’ve been lucky enough to interact with have a far greater appreciation for the process than they do expectation for any outcomes. However, I believe that it can be difficult to appreciate something (like the process) when RJ is most often implemented within a system oriented toward effectiveness as defined by (often punitive) outcomes, e.g., recidivism.

    Ken, your comment above regarding your curiosity surrounding the factors that predispose or persuade a victim to participate in RJ calls what I believe to be much needed attention to the need for restorative research.

    A challenge I’d love to see discussed more frequently within the movement is the process by which we should begin to identify the ways in which to measure our efforts. Will we measure processes or outcomes, or both. For whom? How? We’d also need to articulate what supports our decision to do any and all of the above, and to ultimately explore how the entire process of measuring “effectiveness” can, in fact, be restorative. What would restorative research look like? I think most importantly, and before I get too ahead of myself, should we even move in that direction?
    Food for thought!

    With Peace,
    Tammy D

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