Can Restorative Justice Help Teach Empathy?

Type of process: Community Group Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Offender –Wes (13)
  • Offender Support- Wes’ Parents
  • 2 Facilitators
  • 2 Community Members (1 adult, 1 youth)
  • Police Officer

Criminal Charges Pending: Discharging a Weapon

 Referring agent: Police Department

 Factual Synopsis: A thirteen-year-old boy fired his BB gun several times from the roof of his house. He shot at his neighborhood street and attempted to hit a mailman.


The best way to differentiate Restorative Justice from the traditional, retributive justice system is by looking at the questions each system asks. Retributive justice asks three central questions: “What laws/rules have been broken?” “Who did it?” and “How should they be punished?” Restorative Justice shifts the conversation from laws and punishments to impacts and repairs. In Restorative Justice, the three central questions are: “What happened?” “Who has been affected/harmed?” and “What can be done to repair the harm and make things right?”

There are many benefits to this shift in central questions including the reparation of relationships, the ability to look at individuals and specific circumstances, and the emphasis on finding a positive outcome for everyone. Additionally, the central questions of Restorative Justice encourage the offender to consider the impact of their actions on others, a mental exercise that may increase empathy.

Thirteen-year-old Wes was referred to Restorative Justice for firing his BB gun off the roof of his house into the street. He aimed at, though thankfully did not hit, the mailman who was walking by his house at the time. A neighbor called the cops with a report of some sort of pellet or BB riffle being fired by a teenager on the roof. When the officer arrived at the scene and knocked on Wes’ door, Wes took responsibility for his actions, though he did not exhibit remorse at the time of the incident. Because Wes was honest and took responsibility, the officer referred his case to Restorative Justice.

When I spoke with Wes for our intake call, he expressed that he frequently gets in trouble for doing things without thinking them through beforehand. He shared a story of loading an inappropriate picture on his iPad at school and how his teacher and parents had been upset with him for not thinking before he acts. He said it is the same issue with the BB riffle. He didn’t mean to harm anyone, he just didn’t think about it.

The Co-Facilitator and I met with Wes and his family for the pre-conference and invited Wes to share the story of what happened. After hearing the story, we began to ask him about how others were impacted by his actions. Wes did not have an immediate answer and as facilitators, we asked follow-up questions to help encourage Wes to think about some of the people who were impacted. Through our line of questioning with a tone of curiosity, we helped Wes put himself in the shoes of a neighbor looking out the window and seeing a teenager with a gun on the roof, of the mailman looking up to see a gun aimed at him, of a police officer preparing himself to respond to a report of an armed civilian, of his father opening the door to find the police. Slowly, Wes began to uncover the harms that were caused to the other people involved in the incident, and we encouraged each breakthrough in understanding.

When the Co-Facilitator took Wes into another room to talk about his strengths and assets, I had a chance to speak privately with Wes’ parents. Immediately Wes’ mother began explaining that Wes is on the autism spectrum, and therefore “cannot” understand how other people are feeling, or see his impact on others. I thanked her for sharing her concerns and acknowledged that being on the autism spectrum can make thinking through impacts more difficult. Then we reflected on Wes’ responses from our earlier conversation and discussed how Wes was making the connection between his actions and the impacts on the people involved. I encouraged her to trust the process and the ability of the questions to draw out that understanding, as well as Wes’ ability to understand. Together we brainstormed a few strategies for modifications to the Restorative Justice process that would make it easier for Wes, including asking him to repeat back harms he heard after each person spoke, rather than waiting until the end.

On the day of the conference, Wes once again was able to identify the impacts of his actions on the people involved when we asked specific open-ended questions. Next came the part of the conference when Wes heard from community members and the police officer about additional impacts. The officer in the circle spoke about responding to gun-related incidents and how the stress of the job has impacted his personal life, and how tragically, airsoft or BB guns are often mistaken for real guns, resulting in sometimes deadly encounters between police and civilians. The adult community member spoke about the fear she would experience if she looked out her window and saw a teenager with a gun on the roof. The youth community member, a teenage boy from our Restorative Justice Student Team, spoke about the reputation of teenagers in the community. Wes was able to repeat back the harms each person spoke about and exhibited understanding of the impacts this incident had on others.

Wes’ contract to repair the harms included completing a gun safety course, attending several sessions at a local boxing gym to find a productive way to process aggression, and also an exercise of his own invention to practice thinking about the impacts of his actions. Wes shared with the circle that he would like to make a poster of five things to do and five things not to do that showed the effects of each of those things. Working on that contract item allowed Wes to continue the practice of thinking through impacts of his actions. In this way, the three central questions of Restorative Justice and their impact on the development of empathy will carry over into his life after the culmination of the circle.

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