Is Restorative Justice Effective for Adult Offenders?

Type of process: Community Group Conference (CGC)

Conference Participants:

  • Offender – Joel (24)
  • Offender Support- Lila
  • Victim –Violet (grandmother)
  • Victim – Sally (granddaughter)
  • 2 Facilitators
  • 2 Community Members
  • Police Officer

Criminal Charges Pending: Harassment

Referring agent: Police Department

Factual Synopsis: A young man mistakenly called a grandmother and granddaughter thinking he was calling another driver he was involved in a road rage incidents with. He harassed and threatened the two women over the course of several phone calls in the same evening.

Narrative: Is Restorative Justice effective for adult offenders? This is one of the questions I hear most frequently when I explain my work as a Restorative Justice case coordinator. “That’s cool. So you just work with youth right?” I usually respond by giving the age-range of the offenders I am currently working with. In my current case load, that age-range is 11 to 74, with everything in between. To limit Restorative Justice to juvenile offenders would severely inhibit its possibilities. The most recent case I helped facilitate illustrated the immense potential of Restorative Justice in dealing with crimes and conflicts between adults.

Back in April, Sally (age 25) was spending the afternoon with her grandmother, Violet (age 73). The phone rang and Violet answered. She heard a man screaming on the other end saying, “You cut me off. I know where you live and I’m going to come get you.” Violet tried to explain that he must have the wrong number, but the man continued screaming profanities and threats and eventually she hung up. When the man called back a second time, Sally took the phone. She tried again to say it was the wrong number and told him to stop calling or she would call the police, but the yelling and threats only escalated. The man on the phone told Sally that he would find her and “rape her to death.” Sally hung up and called the police. When the police arrived, the man had called again and when the women didn’t answered, he had left a message on the machine with the same threats and profanities.

The following months, while the police department attempted to track down the caller, were extremely difficult for Sally and Violet and for their family. Violet felt nervous every time she went outside the house, worried that the man on the phone really would find her and do the awful things he had threatened. For months, the fear of this encounter loomed over her. For Sally, it was even worse. As a child, Sally had been the victim of sexual and physical assault. In the months following the phone calls, Sally grappled with the re-surfacing of painful memories and experienced horrible nightmares. When I spoke with Sally during intakes, she said that the man on the phone sounded just angry and crazy enough to actually do the things he had threatened. The fear was real and constant.

Five months passed before the officer handling the case was able to track down the man who had made the phone calls, a 24-year-old named Joel. After speaking with Joel, the officer returned to Violet and Sally and explained that because Joel was taking responsibility for his actions, they could chose to either press harassment charges, or handle the incident through Restorative Justice. Violet and Sally chose to have the case referred to Restorative Justice.

When the group first sat down in a circle together at the community group conference, the tension was palpable. Joel sat down next to his best friend Lila who was there as his support person, avoiding eye contact with Violet and Sally seated on the other side of the lead facilitator. After introductions and ground rules, Joel told his side of the story. The week before the phone calls, Joel had been involved in a serious road rage incident, in which passengers in another car had pulled out baseball bats and repeatedly hit Lila’s car while they were driving down the road. So when Joel was cut off by a car on the day of the incident and experienced the other driver yelling threats at him and Lila through the open window, he was experiencing residual stress from the recent encounter with the baseball bats. Joel saw a phone number on the back of the other driver’s car and hoped to call in to report the man’s bad driving. When Violet answered, Joel believed he was speaking to the driver who had cut him off and was yelling at him and threatening Lila through the window. Joel explained to the circle that he was angry and scared while all this was happening, but that it was no excuse for the things he had said. He expressed how ashamed he felt when he read the police report and saw in print the things he had said over the phone. He mentioned how frightened Violet and Sally must have been and apologized for putting them through that.

After Joel, the circle turned to Violet and Sally to tell their side of the story. Violet explained the fear she experienced and her worries about Sally. Sally shared a statement she had written before, explaining some of the heart-breaking abuse from her past and how what was said in the phone calls had impacted her. Both women also expressed worry for Joel, for the way he manages his anger, and a desire for him to get help.

Next, the police officer spoke and explained to Joel how serious the charges could have been if this case had been handled through the traditional justice system. Punishment could have included jail time, and would have certainly involved fines and probation. The community members expressed their concern about a chain of offenses and anger. One person who is angry harms another, who then out of anger and fear harms another and so on. That cycle could continue indefinitely without tools like Restorative Justice to address repairing harm rather than relying and retributive harming. A young male community member also shared his frustration with men who believe in gender equality like Joel continuing to threaten sexual violence, and the huge step backwards that represents.

After everyone in the circle had spoken and Joel repeated back the harms he had heard identified by each person in the circle, we moved on to Joel’s assets. As the co-facilitator, it had been my job to speak with Joel during the pre-conference to get to know him a bit better, to explore his interests and strengths. I shared our conversation with the circle and spoke about Joel’s love of gardening and music, especially electric guitar. I talked about his fondness for animals, and desire to adopt a German shepherd like the one his family had when he was a child. The mood of the circle began to shift, as victim and offender identified common interests and laughed about Joel’s wish to go back in time and meet Jimi Hendrix.

The agreement phase went smoothly, and the circle arrived at a contract that addressed Joel’s issues with anger, the harm to the victims and the community and the harm Joel had experienced from his actions. By the end of the circle, the tension had dissipated and Sally was chatting and laughing with Joel and Lila, even exchanging phone numbers. At the end of the conference, both Violet and Sally expressed that their fear was gone.

What is outstanding about this particular case is the opportunity that the Restorative Justice process provided for both Joel and Violet and Sally to understand the other side of the incident. At the beginning of the circle, Joel understood that what he had done was wrong and that it could make someone feel afraid, but it wasn’t until he heard from Violet and Sally about their past experiences and fear after the incident, that he understood the true impact of his actions. For Violet and Sally, it was a chance to put a face to their fear, and to understand Joel as a whole person, not just as a terrifying voice on the phone. All three were able to move forward from the incident, Joel towards repairing the harm, and Violet and Sally towards feeling safe again. If this case had been handled by the courts, this opportunity to talk about the incident, to identify the harms, and for Joel to take responsibility, apologize and work towards making things right never would have happened. The phone calls would have continued to be an element of fear and hostility in their lives, impacting their interaction with the world. Instead, that fear and hostility has been transformed into understanding and growth.

Limiting Restorative Justice to youth offenders would have excluded Joel’s case and would have been a major loss for all involved and for the greater community. Restorative Justice is a profound process and a positive tool to be utilized with people of all ages.

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