Victims' Experiences with, Expectations and Perceptions of Restorative Justice: A critical Review of the Literature
While the percentage of victims willing to participate in restorative programs varies across studies, clearly a significant group is interested in them. Moreover, this applies across all types of victimizations, including serious crimes.
There appears to be considerable consensus concerning victims’ reasons for choosing to participate or not in restorative justice programs. Regardless of the seriousness of the victimization, the same themes emerge. Victims participate to obtain compensation, help the offender, confront the offender with the impact of the crime, and to ask the offender why it happened. Conversely, victims choose not to participate because they are afraid of the offender, angry, or simply because they do not think participating is worth the time and effort.
The benefits for victims fall into two groups: reparation and psychological. Clearly, a large group of victims is interested in financial reparation. Reparation has both a practical value (replace monetary losses) as well as a symbolic value as it holds the offender accountable for his or her behaviour.
Among the psychological benefits is the healing effect that restorative justice can have on victims. Most victims who participated in programs claim that meeting the offender had a positive effect on them. However, it can also hurt victims. Some victims were not “ready” to meet their offender, they felt coerced into the meeting, isolated, fearful, or vulnerable. Whether participation hurts or heals depends on a number of factors, such as the perceived sincerity of the offender, the availability of victim support and the neutrality of the mediator.
First and foremost, however, the victim must be open to the idea of restorative justice. Participation must always be completely voluntary. If a victim is not fully ready to meet the offender (e.g. due to fear or anger), attempts to bring parties together may exacerbate the victim’s suffering. All of the above studies found a small but significant group of victims who felt that they had been coerced. That these victims feel revictimized is of no surprise. Victim reluctance to meet face-to-face with the offender is one reason why indirect mediation is more popular among victims than direct mediation. Unfortunately, indirect mediation is generally not available in North America. Research shows that indirect mediation clearly addresses an existing need among victims and there is no reason why it should not be made available in North America.
While most evaluations report high levels of victim satisfaction with restorative justice, there is no clear evidence to conclude that victims are more satisfied than they would be in the traditional criminal justice system. Most studies do not allow a comparison between the two treatments. In the one available study with a design that allows for comparison between the two groups, the results are ambiguous.
Victim dissatisfaction with restorative justice programs is due to lack of information, the absence of restitution and failure by authorities to follow up on offender compliance. It is important to note that these complaints are not unique to restorative justice programs. Victims dissatisfied with their treatment in the traditional criminal justice system likewise complain about the lack of information, restitution and the failure by authorities to ensure offender compliance with restitution orders (see Sullivan, 1998; Wemmers, 1996; Shapland et al., 1985). Also, a lack of remorse on the part of the offender is associated with victim dissatisfaction with restorative justice programs.
Regarding procedural and organizational considerations, an important question is whether approaching victims and asking if they wish to participate in restorative justice programs is disturbing for some victims. Only one study asked victims how they felt about being approached by the mediator and asked to participate in the program (Van Hecke and Wemmers, 1992). This study revealed that while most victims were not bothered by the offer of restorative justice, a small group was and found it an unpleasant experience. It should be pointed out that this was a rather innocuous offer of indirect mediation by a mediator working for the office of the public prosecutor. The purpose of the program was to arrange the payment of restitution by the offender for victims who had retained financial losses as a result of the offence, without diverting the case out of the criminal justice system. If such a simple program can be upsetting to victims, clearly more controversial programs will also have a negative impact on some victims. More research is needed on how victims who choose not to participate are affected by the offer and how any negative affects can be reduced.
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