Monday, July 10, 2006

Offenders, Victims and Restorative Justice

Last month, I presented at the Offender Treatment, Victim Services, Restorative Justice conference in Miami, which was sponsored by the Institute of Evidence-Based and Best Practices. The conference was a bold one–it’s not that usual to bring victims’ and offenders’ advocates together, and when you throw in sessions on applying restorative justice (RJ) to domestic violence (DV), you know they were pushing the limits.

RJ draws from traditional Indian justice traditions. Rather than treating crime as a matter of guilt and innocence, it frames it as harm that affects not just victims, but offenders and the broader community. It assumes that certain conflicts, particularly ones involving families, are best resolved by repairing and improving relationships and controlling risk, rather than simply punishing offenders. It offers victims, abusers, and the community opportunities to come together to consider why crimes happened, what can be done to repair the harm, and how to prevent future harm. It also holds that society has an obligation to help offenders make amends and reintegrate them into the community. RJ isn’t a single technique but a variety of alternatives ranging from mediation to peacemaking courts to family conferences, which can be carried out with court involvement, under court supervision, or as an alternative to court intervention.

Critics see RJ as “light on crime,” offender focused, and dangerous to victims. Anti-DV advocates hold that mediation is impossible between victims and abusers because of imbalances in power. Others claim that involving victims’ and offenders’ friends, support systems, and communities, which is done in conferencing, won’t work because these networks may actually support, rather than discourage, DV.

Supporters counter that RJ often demands accountability where the traditional system doesn’t, particularly in cases involving first time or minor offenders who typically deny their guilt, get off with warnings, and never assume responsibility for what they’ve done. One of the speakers, Donna Coker, a nationally known expert in domestic violence, is among those who suggest that RJ approaches can and should be added to the arsenal of anti-DV tools. She’s written extensively on the limitations of criminal justice approaches to DV, including the “unintended consequences” of mandatory arrest policies. Because the laws fail to distinguish between one-time versus chronic and minor versus severe violence, they’ve resulted in dramatic increases in arrests of women, particularly women of color, as “mutual combatants.” This is in spite of research suggesting that most are acting in self-defense. Recent studies on recidivism also contradict early research that showed that arresting offenders reduced DV—the newer studies suggest that arrest reduces violence in some cases but increases it in others.

Coker and others urge caution in using RJ with DV and emphasize the need to ensure that women are safe and not being overtly or covertly coerced to participate. Among the advantages of RJ are that it offers victims a greater voice in the process, can potentially disrupt social and family support for battering, and provides women with opportunities to engage their families and friends in confronting their abusers.

What does all this have to do with elder abuse? I don’t really know. But the fact that so many elderly victims refuse to initiate punitive action against abusive family members for fear of loosing their relationships makes me think that RJ deserves our attention. I’ve been following the few elder abuse programs I’m aware of that use RJ and was pleased to hear that the director of one, Arlene Groh of Community Care Access Centre of Waterloo Region Ontario, will be presenting at the NAPSA conference in San Francisco in September. Another exciting model project was conducted by the Jamestown S’klallum tribe in Washington state, which uses family conferencing to address conflict in caregiving systems.

We’ve made huge strides in improving the criminal justice system’s response to elder abuse in recent years, which is critical. I don’t see RJ as a threat but rather, as providing opportunities for getting more juice out of the criminal justice system by supplementing court authority with the power of family and community relationships. While the research is sparse, there’s evidence that RJ approaches increase restitution rates and reduce recidivism. Victims’ satisfaction rates are higher. The Miami conference was billed as the “first annual” and I strongly urge anyone who’s interested in expanding the scope and focus of elder abuse prevention to watch for the next one.

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