Restorative justice and victim services collaboration

October 28th, 2009 by Howard Zehr

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.