Can the Restorative Justice Process Be Modified to Fit Individual Needs?

Type of Process: Community Group Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Offender –Tanner (13)
  • Offender Support- Tanner’s mother
  • 2 Facilitators
  • 2 Community Members
  • Police Officer

Criminal Charges Pending: Vandalism

Referring Agent: Police Department

Factual Synopsis: A thirteen-year-old boy with learning disabilities damaged window screens at his school.

Narrative:

The standard model for restorative justice conferences involves the participants sitting together in a circle, respectfully speaking and attentively listening for an average of about two hours. This is not an easy task for anyone and particularly for offenders. Through the process, the offender is asked to tell the story of what happened, taking full responsibility, and then listen to the impacts discussed by each person in the circle, remembering what they say well enough to repeat back the harms after everyone has spoken. It is a mentally and emotionally draining process that presents some level of difficulty for most people. The process can be particularly difficult for those with learning disabilities or mental disorders.

Luckily, the process is flexible. Sometimes it is necessary for the facilitator to make slight modifications in the process in order to fit the individual needs of those present in the circle.

Tanner (age 13) was referred to restorative justice for removing and destroying several window screens at his middle school. During the pre-conference, Tanner’s mother explained that Tanner is bi-polar and has ADD. As a result, it was extremely difficult for Tanner to stay focused and on topic throughout the process. He also struggled with maintaining focus while listening to others. We practiced these skills during the pre-conference and were able to devise several strategies to assist Tanner during the conference. At the end of the pre-conference, Tanner was visibly exhausted by the effort, but felt prepared for the conference ahead.

During the conference, one small modification we made was to ask Tanner to repeat back the harms he heard after each person spoke, rather than waiting until after everyone in the circle had spoken. This assisted Tanner in staying present and he was encouraged when the co-facilitator confirmed that he had successfully named the harms after each person spoke.

Secondly, we incorporated some movement. After everyone had had the chance to speak and the co-facilitator had shared Tanner’s assets, we encouraged Tanner and everyone else in the circle to stand up while we brainstormed possible contract items. The change in perspective from standing up seemed to re-energize Tanner and he exhibited a second wave of focus.

Prior to the conference, when I called the community members, I explained that it would be a challenge for Tanner to remain focused and explained the small modifications we would be making to the process and requested patience and support. This resulted in everyone in the circle being exceptionally patient with Tanner and giving him a great deal of positive feedback, congratulating him for his focus and attention. This was a great thing to see in the circle and speaks to the importance of the pre-conference and checking in with community members before the conference.

The small modifications we made were a large help to Tanner and allowed him to be successful without in any way jeopardizing the process. The question of helpful modifications to the restorative justice process is something I hope will be further explored in the near future. For many offenders, I feel the addition of more movement would be helpful. I am excited about the idea of bringing the whole body into the experience and recognizing that trauma is stored in the body and worked out through movement. These modifications come about through taking the time to get to know the people in the process through the pre-conference and being willing to make the changes needed in order for the individuals involved to be successful.

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