Restorative Justice 101 for Offenders

It means having an understanding of the depth of the pain and the grief they have caused.

Restorative Justice for Offenders in crimes of severe violence begins with Offenders being willing to acknowledge and understand — and take personal responsibility for – the choices they made and the behaviors they engaged in to create the terrible harms and devastations they caused. This means being willing to face and feel personal responsibility for those choices, actions, and behaviors. It means comprehending the depth of the pain and suffering they caused, and understanding something about how they came to be capable of such choices. It means having the courage to face whatever the Victim/Survivor wants and needs to convey to the Offender in a dialogue, and it means being willing to express remorse (if they have the capacity) for the effects of those choices upon the Victims/Survivors. RJ for Offenders is not merely about apology, especially for things that can never be restored or made whole again. And it is not about being forgiven — unless Victims/Survivors feel fully ready within themselves to freely offer that forgiveness at some point during the VOD itself. It is about Accountability.

While RJ is often thought of as providing Offenders with a chance to apologize in person to their Victims/Survivors, there are many Victims/Survivors who do not want an apology — at least not until the Offenders understand a lot more about what they are apologizing for.  These survivors do not want the Offenders in their cases to get away with what they feel is the “cheap grace” of apology. For it is only with a true understanding of how profoundly victims and their survivors have been wounded, and what the survivors continue to live with every day, that Offenders can begin to comprehend what apology can and cannot be. After all, it is completely impossible to “get over” the loss of a loved one to murder, or the loss of one’s innocence and sense of trust and safety to sexual assault or other intimate betrayal and violation.  This is why RJ must be fundamentally and rigorously Victim-Centered if it is to be truly effective.

For most Victims/Survivors this means making the Offender understand not only what s/he did to the victim(s), but the continuing and persistently profound after-effects of what s/he did. When a loved one has been murdered, or when one’s innocence has been shattered by sexual assault or other violation, nothing can be done to “pay back” the life, or the innocence lost, or the trauma and continuing post-traumatic symptoms endured. This is why RJ for Offenders can never be merely a matter of simply summoning the courage — as hard as that may be — to express an apology to a Victim/Survivor, regardless of its sincerity. Because until the Victim/Survivor is certain that the Offender comprehends thoroughly what s/he has actually done, it cannot have the meaning necessary. Some Offenders can begin to substantially infer this understanding through in-prison victim impact panels and victim awareness classes; others may only comprehend it by hearing from, or personally experiencing, a facilitated meeting or dialogue with the person(s) s/he victimized. Still others — a relative few — may end up being unable to comprehend these impacts at all. But even this hard realization can help “explain” some things for Victims/Survivors, as “explanations” are what so many seek from VOD.

For Offenders, finding ways of expressing accountability when not a single thing can be said or done to “repay” the loss, and when words are so terribly insufficient, may seem impossible. But even mere words, when informed by new understandings, can serve to help and heal when they are authentic. And while many RJ theorists and practitioners would like to see RJ initiatives — writing apology letters, for example, or requesting a VOD — originating uninvited from offenders, this is not what Victims/Survivors want. The urge to express remorse and apology may be sincere and heartfelt, but only Victims/Survivors themselves can tell Offenders exactly how much what happened has affected them, and they are the ones who need and deserve to be in control of when — and even whether  — to receive or accept an apology from an Offender, or whether to consider initiating a VOD. This is the very heart of Victim-Centered RJ.

There are many RJ practitioners who believe that all Victims “should” meet with the Offenders in a “mediation” or “reconciliation.” But the words themselves, and the lack of understanding behind them, can be deeply wounding to victims, as they suggest that the matter is merely a “misunderstanding” to be resolved or reconciled. Victimization, violation, loss, and trauma are not misunderstandings. They are vastly more complex, and victims deserve to know clearly — by having it understood and acknowledged — not only what happened to them, but that they were in no way responsible for what happened. The Offenders were responsible, and the choices they made were theirs alone. When Offenders become unambiguously clear about this, the process of restoring a sense of justice for Victims/Survivors may be able to begin again.

Restorative Justice is also often seen as requiring a face-to-face meeting between the Victim/Survivor and the Offender. But this is not always necessary — and it’s certainly not always wanted by the Victim/Survivor. This is why Victim-Centered RJ must be defined first by each Victim/Survivor’s needs – not the needs of the Offender, or of any external religious imperative, or of a Judge, or of society at large. Victimization is deeply personal. And it’s as personal for Offenders as it is for Victims/Survivors.

In crimes of severe violence, RJ practices are intended to have no direct effect or bearing upon an Offender’s sentence, classification, or release date. And yet ironically, it is within the context of reaching a truly personal understanding of accountability that Offenders convicted of severely violent crimes can actually begin to see that making “meaning,” going forward, from what they did in the past can be well worth changing their attitudes, their behaviors, and their lives for – even while still incarcerated. And while extensive data on Offender recidivism in cases where VOD has been applied are limited by the relatively small percentage, nationwide, of VOD cases completed in crimes of severe violence during the past two decades, there are other indicators relating to institutional behaviors following VOD that suggest that criminal thinking, one of the more entrenched criminogenic needs, can be moderated. This shows how a self-actualized commitment to change can be ignited within them, and it is here that the truly transformative potential of Victim-Centered Restorative Justice for Offenders resides.

Restorative Justice is not a matter of “cheap grace,” or “cumbayah,” neither of which does a thing to fundamentally engage an Offender’s desire to change his thinking and behaviors. It is being held to personal account by the Victim/Survivor — in very real and unflinching ways — that enables the Offender to understand what it feels like to answer to the true authority  — the Victim/Survivor. Not the Prosecutor, not the Judge or the Jury, not the Warden or the Correctional Officers — but the Victim/Survivor. That is responsibility at its most personal, and Victim-Centered Restorative Justice is one powerful pathway to this kind of accountability.