Restorative Justice and Violent Crime - Part 1

In an earlier post in this series, I told the story of Michael and Mr. Good, and how restorative justice was utilized as an alternative to the criminal justice process.

This post is about a different type of restorative justice program, for victims of violent crime. In these cases, the traditional criminal justice process has already been carried out – i.e., the person who committed the crime has been tried, sentenced and incarcerated. But for the victim(s) of the crime, the traditional criminal justice process may do little or nothing to address needs victims may have.

Let’s start with a story – about a woman named Jenny*. Jenny had suffered a devastating loss at the hands of a man named Dave*. Dave had murdered Jenny’s brother.

I had the privilege of interviewing Jenny when I was researching and writing the book Grace Goes to Prison: An Inspiring Story of Hope and Humanity.

Jenny told me that for 12 long years, she had been consumed by all of her fear, pain and rage against Dave. “It was ruining me inside,” she said. All of that unresolved rage and fear she’d been feeling had destroyed her first marriage. Her second marriage was crumbling. It had had a profound effect on her children, her health and every aspect of her daily life.

Even though Dave had been tried and convicted and sent away to prison, Jenny said that none of that had helped her to heal from her pain.

Finally, Jenny knew she had to do something to be able to move on with her life. She found out about a program that’s offered in Pennsylvania where victims of violent crime can request a mediation with the person who committed the crime.

So, Jenny requested a mediation with Dave. Marie Hamilton was assigned as one of the mediators.

Over a period of six months, Marie and another mediator met with Jenny regularly, to help her prepare to meet with Dave face to face. They asked her what had made her decide she wanted to meet with Dave, and what her expectations were for a face to face meeting. They helped her to think through what questions she might want to ask Dave, and what things she wanted to say to him. They discussed Dave’s possible reactions and asked Jenny how it might feel to see him, and to listen to things he might want to say.

Jenny’s family was outraged that she planned to meet with Dave. “They were hounding me so bad, saying I shouldn’t do the mediation. I questioned whether I really wanted to go through with it. I was scared to death,” she said. “But I knew this was something I needed to do to save myself.” Jenny had a lot she wanted to say to Dave about how he had turned her life upside down. And she had questions that had weighed on her for years, that only he could answer.

Because Jenny had never been inside a prison, the mediators explained what it would look and sound like, what she should and should not wear, what she would be allowed to bring to the meeting, and the process they would follow for the meeting.

The mediators also had Jenny decide things like whether she wanted to be in the meeting room first, and have Dave brought in, or whether she wanted Dave to already be in the meeting room when she arrived.

During the six months when the mediators were spending time with Jenny, they were also meeting regularly with Dave in the prison to help him prepare for the mediation. Dave was terrified at the prospect of having to face Jenny, at having to see her rage and hurt over what he had done. He was afraid of breaking down in front of her, and afraid that she just wanted a chance to scream in rage at him or to somehow seek revenge. At the prison, the other inmates were harassing him for agreeing to meet with Jenny, and told him he shouldn’t do it. But Dave also wanted a chance for redemption, and he understood that Jenny needed a chance to say some things to him and ask him questions. He told Marie Hamilton, “There’s nothing else I could ever do to make up for what I did—but at least I can do this.”

Finally, after months of intensive preparation, both Jenny and Dave seemed ready to meet. So the mediators scheduled the face to face meeting at the prison where Dave was serving his sentence.

In my next post, I’ll share more of the story of the face to face meeting between Jenny and Dave.

But for now, here’s a little more information about the program they were participating in.

In Pennsylvania, the Office of the Victim Advocate introduced the Mediation Program for Victims of Violent Crime** in 1998.

Marie Hamilton was on the task force that created the program. I spoke with Andrew Barnes, who directs the program, this week. He told me that in the 13 years since the program began, volunteer facilitators have handled over 200 cases, bringing victims or survivors of violent crime together with the people who committed those crimes. They currently have 60 volunteer facilitators all over the state of Pennsylvania who have completed extensive specialized training to facilitate these cases. The process of preparing the victim or surviving family member and preparing the person who committed the crime through separate meetings may take months or even years, before each party feels ready to meet face to face.

A terrific documentary titled Beyond Conviction follows three of those Pennsylvania cases from start to finish. The film has won numerous awards at the Woodstock, Los Angeles, Viennale in Vienna, Austria, Reel Women’s and Leeds International film festivals, and the PASS Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The film has also been featured on Oprah and aired on MSNBC television.

In my travels and speaking engagements, I often share Jenny’s and Dave’s story, and sometimes also show portions of the film. The discussions and questions that follow these stories are always deep, challenging and thought-provoking. The discussions are also sometimes laced with controversy and pain, as in nearly every gathering where I speak about these issues there are people who have been victims of crime, and also people who know someone who has committed a crime. As the description of Beyond Conviction says, these stories offer “a rare glimpse into the lingering pain, questions and regrets for both victims and perpetrators and reveals the bold and difficult path to redemption and reconciliation.”

I’ve come to believe that one of the keys to changing the national debate about crime and justice is to share stories like this – of the kind of redemption and healing that is possible, even after violent crime. I’ll continue posting stories of restorative justice in the weeks and months to come. If you’d like to read more of these stories, please consider SUBSCRIBING or FOLLOWING my blog using the links to the right. Also, please take a minute to share this with others using the LIKE or SEND buttons below. And as always, thanks for reading!

  • pseudonym

  • NOTE: Within the last few years, the legal definition of “mediation” has changed in Pennsylvania, so the name of the program has been changed to “Dialogue Program for Victims of Violent Crime.” The process, however, is the same.

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison restorative justice criminal justice

Next: Restorative Justice and Violent Crime - Part 2

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