Victims' Experiences with, Expectations and Perceptions of Restorative Justice: A critical Review of the Literature
In 1989, New Zealand introduced legislation aimed at encouraging the police to adopt low-key responses to juvenile offending whenever possible. An important part of this legislation is the family group conference. The aim of conferencing is to heal the damage that has been caused by youthful offending, to involve those most affected by the offending in determining appropriate responses to it, and to make things better both for the young people who have committed offences and for their victims. Family group conferences are made up of the young person who has committed the offence, members of his or her family and whoever the family invites, the victim(s) or their representative, a support person for the victim(s), a representative of the police, and the mediator or manager of the process. Family conferencing is used for all medium-serious and serious offending, except murder and manslaughter, and operates both as an alternative to court processing and as a mechanism for making recommendations to judges prior to sentence.
Morris, Maxwell and Robertson (1993) conducted 117 interviews with victims and seven interviews with victims’ representatives. Each victim was interviewed using open-ended questions, which were later coded independently. Unfortunately, the researchers did not provide any information about the types of victimizations included in the sample or the sociodemographic characteristics of the victims in the sample. Nor did they provide information about when the interviews were conducted. In addition, the design did not allow the researchers to draw causal inferences. Nevertheless, the qualitative data do provide insight into victims’ expectations and experiences.
The researchers reported that less than 50% of conferences were attended by the victim(s) or his or her representative. Among the victims who did not attend the conference, most said this was not because they had not wanted to attend: 37% said they had not been invited; 29% claimed the time was not suitable for them; and 18% said they had not been told soon enough to make arrangements. It is not clear why victims were not invited to the conference and how this corresponds with the aim of the program. The researchers reported that “some” victims did not wish to attend the conference for a variety of reasons, including:
- they were too busy,
- they were uninterested/afraid of the young person or his or her family, and
- they were afraid they would not be able to cope.
Among victims who did attend the conference, their reasons for doing so are broken down into four main themes:
- for their own interests (to receive compensation or to confront offender),
- to help or support the offender,
- a sense of duty, and
Factors that enhance victim cooperation include:
- time: victims are more likely to attend conferences held at or after 6:00 p.m., and
- location: victims are less likely to attend conferences held in the offender’s home.
In addition, the researchers pointed out that in one location the victims’ advocate contacted all victims and encouraged them to participate. Victims were told that they would have a greater chance of receiving restitution through conferencing than through the traditional criminal justice system. As a result, many victims had high expectations regarding compensation.
Most victims claimed to feel better after the conference. In general, victims who said that they felt better also said that they had been involved in, rather than excluded from, the process. They felt that the meeting with the offender allowed them to release negative feelings about the offender and the offence.
About one quarter of victims claimed to feel worse after attending the conference. They expressed feelings of fear, depression, distress and unresolved anger. Some felt unable to express their true feelings or remembered the feelings that occurred at the time of the offence. Others complained about the lack of support they had in the conference in contrast to how they perceived the offender’s situation. Some felt that the outcome was inadequate or were distressed by the lack of remorse shown by the offender or the lack of redress at the conference. In general, those victims whose offences had the greatest impact on them were most likely to feel worse if they attended the conference. The authors concluded that it is a mistake to assume that victims and offenders can simply be brought together without prior careful briefing of the parties and without much training of mediators.
When asked if there was anything that should have been done differently regarding the conference, 70% said no. Of those who did want to see changes, 10% wanted more support for victims, 10% wanted more information before the conference about what to expect, the likely length of the meeting, etc., and 4% wanted more notice of the timing of the conference. The remainder (6%) were not sure about whether or not changes were desirable.
Compared to the police, and to young offenders and their families, victims were the least satisfied with the outcomes. Overall, 35% of the victims were not satisfied with the outcome. Interestingly, victims who attended the conference were more likely to be dissatisfied with the outcome (43%) than those who did not attend (23%). Most of the victims who were dissatisfied wanted harsher penalties or reparation while a small number of victims felt that more attention should have been paid to the welfare of the young person. Unfortunately, the researchers did not differentiate between punishment and reparation, thereby making it unclear whether the victims desire retribution or restitution. The researchers attributed the greater outcome satisfaction among those who did not attend conferencing to the fact that the offences against them tended to be less serious. In addition, they examined the relationship between reparation and victim satisfaction and found that the two were not related.
The researchers pointed out that the high level of outcome dissatisfaction among the victims who participated in conferencing is surprising considering that the victims must agree on the outcome before it can be accepted. They suggested that victim dissatisfaction may reflect the lack of adequate briefing for victims about their role in conferencing and what they might expect it to be. It is possible that victims did not realize that they could disagree with the outcome. The researchers concluded that victims lacked adequate information. The psychological preparation for meeting offenders requires more thought by conference organizers. Victims need time to think through the possible consequences of meeting offenders and their families.
In March 1999, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) published an evaluation by Chatterjee of the RCMP’s restorative justice initiative. Specifically, the study examined participant satisfaction regarding community forums. Forums are basically a derivative of the group family conferences found in countries like New Zealand and Australia. Starting in 1996, the RCMP offered training in restorative justice to its members, which enabled them to conduct forums in their own communities. According to Chatterjee, by October 1998, 1700 people throughout Canada had received the training and were equipped to conduct forums.
The data come from written questionnaires (19 victims) and from interviews conducted by telephone (44 victims). Unfortunately, the author did not provide information about the response rate. The questionnaires, for example, were distributed through the mediators and thus the researchers did not know how many questionnaires were distributed and whether or not the mediators were selective when distributing the questionnaires. The author did state, however, that only a small number of written questionnaires were received and that despite repeated efforts by the researchers, they were unable to generate more questionnaires. The author also warned that the findings may be biased (Chatterjee, 1999: 11). Without information concerning the response rate of the sample, the results cannot be considered representative and must be viewed with caution.
In addition, Chatterjee (1999) did not provide information regarding the time lapse between the respondents’ participation in the project and the point at which the data were collected. If victims’ impressions change over time, the data may be affected.
Victims were asked to indicate their satisfaction with the fairness of the procedure on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 indicates strong satisfaction and 1 indicates no satisfaction. It is worth noting that, by using this scale, everyone who gave a score of 2 or more was considered satisfied.
Victims were asked to indicate their overall satisfaction with the program. According to Chatterjee (2001), 45% of the victims gave a rating of 5 (very satisfied), 40% gave a rating of 4 and 11% gave a rating of 3.
The author reported that 68% of victims were very satisfied (a rating of 5) with the fairness of the procedure, 32% were quite satisfied (a rating of 4) and 7% were moderately satisfied (a rating of 3) (Chatterjee, 2001). On average, victims’ satisfaction with the fairness of the procedure was 4.8 (Chatterjee, 1999).
Similarly, victims were asked to indicate their satisfaction with the fairness of the agreement. According to Chatterjee (2001), 59% of the victims expressed strong satisfaction with the agreement (a rating of 5), 35% were quite satisfied (a rating of 4), 3% were moderately satisfied (a rating of 3) and 3% were somewhat satisfied (a rating of 2). The average score was
4.6. While most victims were satisfied with the agreement, Chatterjee noted that a “minority” of victims claimed they felt pressured to accept the agreement (1999: 44).
The author concluded that the respondents were highly satisfied with the program. However, once again, due to the absence of information about the response rate and whether the data are representative of the population, one should be careful in extrapolating the findings to victims in general. As it stands, the only conclusion that can be drawn based on the available information is that the victims who participated in the study were generally satisfied.
Strang (2000) evaluated the Australian experiments on “reintegrative shaming” Shaming makes use of conferencing by police. Once a police officer has determined that it is legally appropriate to send a case either to court or to a diversionary conference, the case is entered into the program. The types of offences included in the program were property crimes and violent crimes. Once a case was entered into the program, a mathematical formula was used to determine which treatment would be assigned to each case. In this way, assignment to conference or court was random. The findings are based on interviews with 169 victims - 85 victims in conference group and 84 in court group. However, not all cases were treated as assigned; in the end, only 67 of the conference cases were handled as assigned and 77 of the court cases were handled by the court. Interviews were held after the court and conference treatments had been completed.
While most evaluations of restorative justice programs report high levels of victim satisfaction, most studies do not use a comparison group, which means that we do not know if they are more or less satisfied than victims whose cases are handled by the courts (see Umbreit, 1994). The fact that the study by Strang (2000) used a comparison group and random assignment to groups makes it a particularly interesting study, as it allows us to attribute any observed differences between groups to the treatment. Unfortunately, the comparison between conference victims and court victims was hindered because many court victims were not notified of the developments in their case and were not aware of the outcome of their case.
While the author did not provide data on victim expectations, she did point out that victims need to be given realistic expectations about what can be achieved with a restorative process as over-optimistic assessment of likely outcomes can lead to disappointment. She concluded that proper preparation of victims regarding their role in the conference and what they might expect is of vital importance.
Most victims claim to be satisfied with the way their case was dealt with by the justice system. For the victims in the conferencing group this percentage was 63%; for the victims whose cases were dealt with by the courts this percentage was 54%. The observed difference between groups was not statistically significant. However, Strang (2000) repeated this analysis using only those victims whose cases were treated as they had been assigned. Based on this smaller group, Strang reported that 72% of the victims in the conference group versus 50% of the court group said they were satisfied with the way the system dealt with their case. This time the difference between groups was statistically significant (p < .01). An important question is whether or not one should use the smaller group of cases in which conferencing actually took place or the larger (assigned) groups. Strang argued that the smaller group gives a more accurate picture of what really happened. Indeed, the actual experiences of victims is important to understand and interpret the findings. Here, it seems that victims whose cases were assigned to conferencing, but in the end did not result in a conference, were more critical of how their case was dealt with. Restorative justice programs are usually voluntary; therefore, there will always be cases in which the victims and/or the offenders choose not to participate and consequently have to be dealt with differently. The reactions of these victims is an important factor that must be addressed. However, Strang did not provide further information about this group and it is not clear whether or not their attitudes are significantly less favourable.
In addition to satisfaction, Strang (2000) inquired into victims’ procedural preferences. When asked whether they were pleased that their case was dealt with in the way it was (whether by court or by conference), rather than by the alternative treatment, significantly more conference victims than court victims agreed that they were pleased their case was treated the way it was, rather than by the courts (68% versus 49%). However, these statistics are based on assigned groups rather than experienced groups. For the victims whose cases were not dealt with as they originally had been assigned, it is unclear just what exactly they are responding to.
Interestingly, Strang found that the difference between the conference and court groups regarding their procedural preferences was caused mainly by victims of property crimes. Among victims of property crimes, 70% of the conference victims said they were pleased versus 42% of the court victims. Victims of violent crimes were equally pleased with the conference and the court (66% for both groups). Therefore, it seems that for property crimes, victims generally preferred conferencing to the courts. However, not all victims of property crimes preferred conferencing. Strang reported that for some victims, especially shopkeepers and shop managers who are repeatedly victimized by shop theft, it is a relief to have no further involvement in the case. These victims have no desire to spend their time attending the conferences of their offenders.
Strang (2000) also reported that victims in the conference group were more likely to be notified of the developments in their cases and to receive restitution than the victims in the court group. It is well established that the absence of notification and restitution are important complaints by victims regarding the criminal justice system and that these services enhance victim satisfaction with the justice system (Wemmers, 1996; Shapland et al., 1985). In the present study, it is unclear to what extent notification and restitution contributed to victims’ evaluations of the treatment they received. It may well be that it is not conferencing but notification and restitution that are responsible for the observed differences in victims’ evaluations of the way their cases were handled.
Another indication of victim satisfaction with conferencing is their willingness to participate in conferencing again in the future. However, this question was presented only to the conference group and therefore it does not allow a comparison between groups. Nevertheless, most (74%) conference victims said that they would “probably” or “definitely” attend a conference if they were the victim of a young person’s offending again.
There were also some victims who were clearly dissatisfied with the whole process. Strang (2000) reported complaints by one victim who claimed to have been pressured by police to participate in conferencing. Another victim felt intimidated by the offender. Yet another felt isolated and vulnerable. Strang conceded that there is sometimes greater risk of secondary victimization through the exposure of victims in conferences. She concluded that the excessive focus on the offender can lead to insufficient attention for the victim and his or her needs. She argued that proper training of facilitators and good conference organization could have avoided some of these problems.
With respect to outcome satisfaction, Strang (2000) reported that too few victims in the court group were aware of the outcome of their case to allow a comparison between groups. Data are available only for the conference group. Comparing victims of property crime with victims of violent crime, Strang found a large difference between groups. Eighty-one percent of the victims of property crimes and 56% of the victims of violent crimes whose cases were assigned to conferencing were satisfied with the outcome immediately after the conference. Unfortunately, the author did not address the possible reasons for the observed difference.
Strang (2000) did, however, provide information regarding changes in outcome satisfaction over time. Interestingly, six weeks after the conference, 17% of those victims of property crimes who had initially expressed satisfaction with the conference outcome were no longer satisfied. According to the researcher, this was almost always due to failure of the offender to comply with the agreement. Among the victims of violent crimes, six weeks after the conference all of the victims who had initially expressed satisfaction with the conference outcome continued to be satisfied. The author found that follow-up of conference agreements was extremely important for victim satisfaction. Authorities must rigorously monitor compliance by offenders and must notify victims that agreements have been honoured so that they can feel a sense of closure about the offence and the conference.
It is often argued that restorative justice can have a healing effect on victims as well as on offenders (see Roach, 1999; Umbreit, 1994). Strang (2000) reported that the largest differences between groups related to emotional restoration. The researcher looked at feelings of vindictiveness. Specifically, victims were asked whether: you would do some harm to your offender yourself if you had the chance. Victims of violent crimes were more inclined to agree with this statement than victims of property crimes. For both the court and the conference group, only about 7% of the victims of property crimes agreed with this statement. However, among the victims of violent crimes, 54% of the court victims said they would do some harm to their offender if they had the chance, compared to only 7% for the conference victims. This finding indicates that the conference victims seem to have been more successful in coming to terms with the offence than the court victims.
-  Due to a printing problem, these percentages were not legible in the report. These statistics were provided by Chatterjee in a personal communication, July 2001.
-  Of the remaining 17 cases assigned to conferencing, 11 went to court, 3 offenders were given a caution and 3 were untreated. All 8 offenders assigned to court received a caution instead.
-  To answer this question, victims in the court group were given a brief description of conferencing.
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