We are losing the "war on crime" with our strategy of deterrence through retribution. We can’t hire enough cops or build enough prisons to restore a sense of public safety to our streets. This escalation of fear and violence is eroding the social glue at all levels of society.
The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) of Polk County, Oregon, is one of 120 organizations in the US that are trying a different approach: restoration of community rather than retribution. Volunteer mediators meet separately with victims and offenders, and then bring them together to negotiate restitution for the crime.
In one instance in this rural western Oregon county, a teenager was caught after shoplifting several times. The store manager, who was very angry at first, admitted during the negotiating session that he also had stolen when he was young. As restitution, the teenager agreed to work 20 hours in the store without pay. At the end of that period, the manager hired him as a regular employee.
In another case, a young man threatened with a gun an elderly woman who had stopped to take a break after developing severe leg cramps. During the mediation session some weeks later, the woman described how the incident had affected her life: she had been ill for over a week, and not a day had gone by when she hadn’t relived the experience of the "ugly, threatening, red-haired young man."
The offender, shaken by her description, expressed remorse for his action. A behavioral contract was drawn up, and the woman accepted his apology, saying she was glad to see that the young man was not the "monster" she had imagined. The two embraced at the end of the session, and she told the youth she expected he’d become a fine young man. "I think you’ve learned a lot from this," she said.
A study now underway is expected to provide hard data about the success of the program by next year, but director Sandie Pattison says the evidence is clear. Ninety percent of participants fulfill their restitution agreements, and only 6 percent of program participants under age 17 who have completed the program get into further trouble with the law. In contrast, the recidivism rate for government-run juvenile corrections programs is about 96 percent, according to the Oregonian newspaper.
The concept of Restorative Justice, which provides the philosophical underpinnings for the Polk County program and other VORPs, is not new. The term dates back at least as far as 1974, when a Mennonite probation officer and a volunteer service director in Kitchener, Ontario, organized a discussion group to look for a more humane and effective system of criminal justice.
But Restorative Justice is based on far older traditions that pre-date Western culture. In these traditions, crime is viewed as a breach of the common welfare and an injury to the victim and the victim’s family that require just reparation. Restoration is a healing process, aiming for reconciliation rather than retribution, in the interests of re-establishing right relationships and peace in the community.
The Restorative Justice approach is holistic, recognizing that the needs and responsibilities of all the parties to a crime – the victim, the offender, secondary victims (such as the families of the victim and the offender), the community, and the state – are interconnected in a dynamic relationship. In contrast, our current get tough justice system views crime as a violation of law and a challenge to the authority of the state.
Community involvement, in the form of a mediation panel, recognizes the partial responsibility of a community for the actions of its members. In most cases, punishment is community based, providing supervised conditions that enable the offender to eventually be restored to a position of respect. Available prison space is reserved for dangerous criminals, an estimated 20-25 percent of those now incarcerated.
VORPs have been established in Canada, England, and Germany, and victim/offender mediation was the topic of a recent NATO conference in Italy.
This transformation in criminal justice is not just one more new program in a 200-year succession of failed programs, but a revolution in the paradigm, a change of heart as well as a change of mind. The failure of our criminal justice system is now so overwhelming as to serve as the catalyst for a radical change.
NOTES AND RESOURCES
Daniel W. Van Ness, et al. Restorative Justice: Theory, Washington, DC: The Justice Fellowship 1989.
Community Mediation Services of Polk County, 976 S.W. Hayter, Dallas, OR 97338, tel. 503/623-3111.
Justice Fellowship, PO Box 17500, Washington, DC 20041-0500, tel. 703/478-0100: publishes information on Restorative Justice; advocates for reform of the US criminal justice system.
Prisoners and Community Together, Institute of Justice Resource Center, 254 S. Morgan, Valparaiso, IN 46383, tel. 219/462-1127: directories of VORP services in the US, informational and training materials.