Crime Victims’ Experiences of Restorative Justice: A Listening Project

Advancing restorative justice

Based on the needs and experiences described above, what measures can help to improve restorative justice programs for crime victims and survivors? Based on participant comments, this section describes priorities and ideas for restorative justice programs and their surrounding systems to better serve and support people in the aftermath of victimization.

Provide Flexible Processes

The flexibility of the restorative justice process to accommodate a range of needs and hopes resonated as important for many participants. For example, many wished for a face-to-face encounter; others wanted a face-to-face encounter only under certain circumstances; still others wanted information or reparation without an encounter. Participants entered the restorative justice process with diverse goals and advocated for processes that could be responsive to these goals.

Three prominent themes emerged related to providing options and flexibility to enhance victim involvement.

Prominent Themes for the Need for Flexibility

  • Create choices and options for victims.
  • Provide the opportunity for follow-up and multiple meetings as requested.
  • Provide victims with increased control over timelines in restorative justice.

Create choices and options for victims

Participants explained the need for restorative justice programming that can meet the diverse needs of victims, even when the offender does not wish to participate or is not suitable for the program. As pointed out by one participant, “Don’t assume that victims don’t know what they need. Don’t assume that restorative justice is not suitable for victims. They should be informed about this option. Restorative justice can relieve suffering.”

Furthermore, many victims reflected that restorative justice processes should not automatically be discounted based on the seriousness of the crime. Indeed, as participants listened to one another, many became inspired to emphasize that victims should be the ones deciding if a criminal case should/could involve a restorative justice element, rather than the decision being made for them: “For victims to have the ultimate choice, even if the crime is considered serious. That victims are deciding what process they want and not having that decided for them based on seriousness of the crime.”Footnote 12

Provide follow-up and the opportunity for multiple meetings as requested

Recognizing that feelings and circumstances evolve over time, participants valued opportunities for more follow-up from practitioners (this is also part of the “Information” section below) and the opportunity for follow-up meetings after the initial restorative justice process is completed. They shared statements such as:

  • “It would help to know more about how the offender is doing after the RJ process; have the option of a secondary meeting, another chance to have a process…recognizing that the offender has the right to move on and cannot be required to do this if they do not consent.”
  • “Follow-up is so important. Regardless of how much time has gone by, it would be good to have another chance to meet with the offender.”
  •  “Do you think a one-shot meeting is the be-all and end-all? I’m wondering if there can be more than one meeting…maybe a first meeting where the victim and offender can just ‘meet’…and then meet again months later. Because I think it can be a shock to meet the offender and realize that they’re not bad…they don’t look bad, they just look normal. This can also give the sense of whether the offender is truly remorseful, or if they have another agenda. Without that, I just have to trust the facilitator’s judgement. I may want to try this myself.”

Provide victims with increased control over timelines in restorative justice

While it was acknowledged that timelines may be partly out of the control of restorative justice programs per se, many participants advocated that services be increasingly attentive to victim timelines. As noted above, some participants expressed that the long wait between the time of referral and the time of facilitated dialogue was troubling. One participant said the wait was “the hardest part” due to lingering unanswered questions (especially regarding their safety) during that time; another said they were concerned there would be violent community reprisals during that time out of a perception by community members that nothing was being done. Other participants felt like they were being rushed to make their decision about participating without fully understanding what the restorative justice process was about. In the simple words of a satisfied participant: “I didn’t feel rushed.” Overall then, robust and ongoing communication with victims around their expectations and concerns regarding the timelines of the restorative justice process was deemed advisable.

Additional ideas for flexible and responsive practice

Other suggestions related to flexible and responsive participation for victims included the following:

  • Allow input on the way the dialogue is conducted. For example, one participant explained, “I was able to speak first, which was very important for me.”
  • Provide options and be responsive regarding meeting locations. Establish a policy of offering to visit the victim’s home, or another location of the victim’s choosing.
  • Consider creative ways to allow the victim to gain information about the offender prior to the process. This was deemed as a means to alleviate anxiety/fear in advance of the process. One participant suggested that the victim could be provided a photo of the offender in advance of the process (with the offender’s permission). This latter suggestion was indicated to be especially important for youth victims.
  • Ensure plenty of options pertaining to victim support persons. This theme of support will be explored more fully below.
  • Provide opportunities for victims to influence restorative justice outcomes. Many participants reported satisfaction at having been able to influence restorative justice outcomes and agreements according to their needs and sense of fairness. This was not interpreted as a request for victim “veto” or control over sentencing, but as the desire for meaningful input.
  • Offer a variety of options for victim participation. One participant provided this summary: “Creating options for victims to participate to address the diversity of needs…using a proxy person, using a letter, etc. Especially when victims want to remain anonymous. Especially in a small community…the victims don’t want to be known by the offender, and that’s a safety issue. In some cases, the victim may not want to know who the offender is because it can be triggering. Sometimes the victim may want information provided to them as an alternative option. Allowing victims to participate in various ways when a face to face meeting is not appropriate or comfortable should always be made available.”

Enhance Communication and Messaging about Restorative Justice

Project participants suggested that restorative justice programs aim to provide as much information as possible to victims, at every point in the process from intake, process design, and follow-up. This included information about options for both victims and offenders, along with the impacts of these options on judicial outcomes. One concrete suggestion was to create clear visual aids, such as diagrams, for participants to understand restorative justice processes and their place within the judicial process. “Standardization” was raised as one potential avenue of exploration, to improve clarity of communication about restorative justice to prospective participants and to create more consistency around what to expect.

Participants also brought attention to the type of messaging restorative justice programs offer to victims and to referral sources. Several participants commented that their first impression of restorative justice, based on communication received through law enforcement, victim services, and others, was as a service primarily to help offenders avoid jail sentences, avoid criminal records, and reduce re-offending. As noted above, this messaging resonated with a few participants who were motivated to assist with helping the offender change their behaviour. However, participants noted that this type of messaging limits victim participation to those with that motivation or communicates that the service may be irrelevant to crime victims with other types of needs. One restorative justice practitioner spoke to this issue:

I often hear from victims on first contact that the motivation to participate is to help the offender. This is a risk in my mind, because none of us have control over the offender. Nobody has asked them how they’re doing and what they need, so they’re not used to answering that. Offenders actually do better in processes that are victim-centered.

One victim participant noted that victims are likely to “hold back” expressing strong emotions because they do not want their needs to be imposed on the offender. It was suggested that justice system stakeholders who are possible referral agents to restorative justice be more accurately educated on the potential benefits of restorative justice for victims and survivors. It was also suggested that restorative justice programs more clearly articulate a range of services they provide for victims.

Many participants expressed a view that a current lack of adequate information available to the public about restorative justice contributes to skepticism and a public credibility problem for restorative justice initiatives. This can have an isolating effect on victims who participate in restorative justice in that they can feel misunderstood or even judged by a society (including those known to them) that does not appreciate or understand their choices and experience. In addition, participants expressed concern that victims needing restorative justice services have access to it: “Restorative justice needs to be more public so those harmed know it’s an option and can request it.” Another participant noted:

It’s important for everyone to know that restorative justice is an option, and to know what the outcome and follow-through is. For example, hearing about a crime issue in the media, but not knowing there was a restorative outcome. This good outcome should be publicized too. So, a focus on public education for the community, and perhaps justice system stakeholders as well.

Another participant joked: “[The public] needs more awareness! Maybe ‘The Rock’ could make a viral video for us?”

Improve coordination with Justice Partners

Participants noted that restorative justice initiatives operate both within and apart from the formal criminal justice system, sometimes making for a confusing experience of justice as a whole. Accordingly, a suggestion was to increase coordination among all justice partners and streamline messaging: “Bring information about restorative justice to people as early as possible so people know what’s available to them. I know this is complicated and would require a lot of coordination between justice partners. How it is brought to someone and how it is framed is important!”

Additionally, some participants —particularly those with a victim services background—observed a lack of coordination between victim services and restorative justice programs:

I think it would be awesome if victim services and restorative justice programs could have more of a relationship …Even if a worker at [a restorative justice program] is having trouble connecting with a victim, they can call us [at victim services] and we can connect with the victim and offer them options… And if victim services can be there to support someone during restorative justice, we will be there for support.

Participants also suggested that it would be desirable for criminal justice personnel and criminal justice policy to be cognisant of and informed by restorative justice principles to make for a more seamless process for victims: “Maybe restorative justice specialists should have more interface with the criminal justice system so that their personnel can better answer questions for victims.”

Improve Access for Indigenous Participants

Participants noted that restorative justice services are not currently available in every community, and there may be particular gaps for Indigenous participants (despite the existence of the Indigenous Justice Program across Canada). As noted previously, Project participants acknowledged that maximum choice for traditional ceremonies and rituals (such as a smudge) may enhance participation for victims identifying as Indigenous. On a related note, one participant expressed a concern that police discretion in making referrals to restorative justice programs is susceptible to being influenced by racist attitudes and therefore result in an inequitable use of this discretion (i.e., both victims and offenders from marginalized cultural groups may benefit less from the existence of restorative justice programs by not being referred due to police discretion).

Refine the Language of Restorative Justice

“Victim”

Within the context of this project, participants frequently raised the issue of what term to use regarding their role in the restorative justice process. For the most part, the term “victim” was used as a placeholder but generally unsatisfying to individuals. As one participant said: “The term ‘victim’ is very uncomfortable, because there’s a running narrative that says ‘don’t be a victim’” and from another session: “Victim makes me sound weak.” Another participating victim advocate observed: “I am not sure what kind of language is needed but we need to give them [victims] a sense of authority to deal with their situation.” As noted above, many programs participating in this project used terms other than victim, for example “harmed party”. A participant in one session said that “instead of victim we should say ‘victor’” and that term which began as a humourous suggestion persisted for the remainder of the session (referring to one another as “victors”). While no conclusion was reached, it is clearly worthwhile for restorative justice programs to give attention to the term “victim” and consider discussing it with participants.

“Forgiveness”

In some of the sessions, the term “forgiveness” was deliberated. Ideas were raised regarding if and how forgiveness is discussed so that victims do not perceive that obligations or judgements about their intentions are being placed on them, or that they are expected to forgive if they participate. Some suggested this can be especially true from an Indigenous cultural perspective, where community harmony is often centred and therefore perceived pressure to forgive may be heightened. Participants advised that restorative justice programs be cautious around how the word “forgiveness” is used when interacting with participants.

Expand Financial Support and Compensation For Victims

Based on the challenge or tension victims may feel regarding identifying compensation or financial support as a need (discussed above), participants suggested that programs think more concretely about how to support victims in this manner. One session spent significant time brainstorming about the function of a “victory fund” specifically for victims to access for all the costs they may incur to participate in a restorative justice process (babysitting, travel, time off work) or in those cases where they are requesting restitution that the offender is not able to provide. A participant who was a practitioner noted: “Sometimes there’s a [government] fund for victims, but it’s an emergency fund only. It’s meant to be for urgent situations for safety and immediate wellbeing. So, prioritizing getting money back for victims. And not misleading victims of what those ‘victim funds’ are for if they’re for emergency only.”

Some reflection emerged on the (purported) Japanese cultural tradition of “sorry money,” which allows for victim acknowledgement, and bypasses the large court system. While this was not necessarily promoted as “the solution,” it points toward the possibility for victims to receive and expect reparation without having to undergo personal anxiety around raising compensation as a need.

Enhance and Prioritize Support Systems

Participants had several suggestions related to enhancing support in their involvement with restorative justice.

Explore creative approaches to victim support

Participants noted how sometimes offender supporters can be articulate in encouraging the offender to take responsibility, which can relieve that burden from the victim. They suggested restorative justice programs consider how to maximize this potential, in particular with victims who would like to participate but are shy or reluctant to speak up for themselves. It was advised that any such discussion happen in collaboration with the victim(s).

A youth participant indicated that victims might sometimes feel safer if the option of a police officer being present at the restorative justice process is offered (which it was acknowledged may not be what helps all victims to feel safe). Another suggestion was that a therapy animal be available for the victim during the process. For some victims, it may relieve pressure to have a physical list of options available that can be included for consideration in an agreement with the offender, like certain community programs to help addiction issues, or volunteer opportunities available for the offender if community service is important to the victim.

Provide the option of designated “mentors” for victims

As previously discussed, participants from one program described having been assigned a mentor by the restorative justice program, who provided accompaniment through the preparation, dialogue and follow-up stages of the process. This experienced mentor became a “sounding board” through the exploration of needs, asked useful probing questions during one-to-one meetings, and provided important validation to the affected person. While mentors are more typically considered appropriate to assist youth in restorative justice programs, this role was in fact upheld as invaluable for all victims.

Optimize Victim Participation/Voice

Listening Project participants had suggestions regarding how programs can be more oriented toward meaningful and safe participation for victims.

Enhance victim intake and case preparation

Participants suggested that intake procedures especially designed for victims are important to optimize comfort and clarity. A simple telephone call asking if they would like to participate in a predetermined process was described as insufficient; instead, restorative justice programs should actively demonstrate how its programming is tailored to the victim’s care and support. Participants noted that victims can naturally make assumptions that because the program may save court time, and because the offender may clearly benefit from the judicial outcome, their own participation is superfluous. One participant noted: “I agree that restorative justice is primarily focused on the offender and I get that from a dollar and cents perspective because incarceration is so expensive and it doesn’t work, they just learn to be better criminals. But restorative justice should be about the victims cleansing too.” Demonstration that the program incorporates options and choices at the time of intake may help signal to victims that restorative justice is indeed for them.

Participants especially emphasized that, as a part of intake, programs should refrain from making assumptions about why or whether a victim would participate (e.g. helping the youth who committed the offense). They expressed a need to feel free to make the choice to participate or opt out based on their own needs and motivations, and with enough time to decide. If they are in a place where they are not in favour of proceeding with restorative justice, they expressed needing to be free to express that (after having heard information relevant to them) and not have assumptions placed on them: “We need to meet (victims) where they are at because sometimes it might not be right now that they want restorative justice and that is ok.”

Dialogue should be voluntary, accountability should not

Participants expressed the perspective that while no one (including offenders) should be forced to undertake facilitated dialogue, there must be recourse and assurance that the offender will be held accountable in some manner by the justice system. One participant expressed the notion that the restorative justice process and its surrounding systems must have “teeth” if accused persons are not demonstrating accountability. This theme was also linked with a “credibility problem” observed for restorative justice, i.e. that restorative justice is perceived by the public as being a “soft” approach to crime. Having demonstrable avenues of recourse when offenders do not complete agreements may assist in alleviating this potential perception of restorative justice and evoke confidence in victims.

Ensure that practitioners are well informed regarding community programs and associated costs

Participants noted that options like offender treatment carry funding realities that sometimes prevent these options from being contemplated during restorative justice processes. It was suggested that practitioners be made knowledgeable about the kinds of plans that will be realistic to carry out. Participants observed that this knowledge during the agreement phase of an encounter is more satisfying for victims than being uncertain about what might unfold for the offender’s obligations.

Conduct rigorous case preparation with the offender around accountability

Reflection from participants indicated that thorough case preparation is warranted to ensure offenders enter the process prepared to demonstrate accountability. To this end, facilitators need to have a firm understanding of the extent to which the process will be productive and whether and how each offender will constructively demonstrate accountability and/or remorse. Without this, participants expressed concern that the process could be unproductive and even troubling for the victim. Participants indicated that this is especially true in small communities where victims have to see the offenders regularly.

Revisit Confidentiality Agreements

One participant commented that due to a confidentiality agreement signed before the facilitated dialogue, this participant was prohibited from sharing the results of the process to others. A suggestion was made to revisit such agreements after the conclusion of the process. The participant noted: “There are things I would like to have been able to share [to those outside of the restorative justice process], and I think this would have benefited everyone.”

Improve Victim Surrogacy Experience

Some programs offer the option of victim surrogacy for victims who are not willing or able to participate, but the case is still able to move forward with a process for the offender. Participants had several reflections on how to make that experience more meaningful.

Strive for authentic representation

Many expressed that it was not adequate or desirable for victim surrogates to be involved in the restorative justice process without having met with the direct victim in the case. The suggestions were to establish mechanisms to ensure victims are consulted in a sensitive manner in each case, so that victim surrogates are not speculating about a victim’s sentiments in any given case. It was suggested that this offers victims a truer voice.

Keep direct victims informed, even where surrogates are involved

Participants noted that restorative justice programs would ideally provide follow-up information to the victim on the offender’s agreement and compliance and report back regarding unanswered questions. A participating victim surrogate said: “Maybe as surrogates we can address the ‘why’ and give that information back to the victim to give them some healing...follow up, keep them informed, letting them know something happened.”

Provide the option to have the victim surrogate participate along with the direct victim

This was suggested as specifically relevant for victims who are hesitant or shy to participate but would still like the opportunity for an encounter with the offender.

Prioritize Victim-Sensitive Training

A theme that wove its way through all the Listening Project sessions was the meaningful difference it made for victims to have a skilled facilitator leading the process, and to have connection with and confidence in that facilitator. Some concrete suggestions related to the skills desired by facilitators are as follows.

Train restorative justice facilitators to be “dually partial”

One participant described knowing that the restorative justice facilitators were working for both his own well-being and that of the offender, yet feeling always that “they were there for me and walking with me….you want to feel from facilitators that they’ve ‘got you.’”

Ensure all restorative justice program staff are trained to exhibit compassion for victims

Participants appreciated being seen and heard at every level of the restorative justice program, not just by their direct practitioner. When other people volunteering or on staff with the restorative justice program (for example, the receptionist) treated the matter as “run-of-the-mill,” this was experienced as disappointing and frustrating.

Ensure that restorative justice services are “trauma-informed”

Recognizing that both victims and offenders have often survived traumatic experiences, it was recommended that restorative justice services and practitioners be informed by an understanding of trauma and recovery and design programs in line with principles of Trauma-Informed Practice.

Provide access to restorative justice for victims in all cases of victimization

Participants did not consistently recommend specific offences that should be excluded from eligibility for restorative justice. Some participants expressed hesitation around severe cases of violence in sessions where no victims who had experienced such violence were present. Most sessions indicated restorative justice should be widely available for victims regardless of the crime. However, it was noted that there needs to be a “recognition of safety issues and, for example, power and control issues” (such as in incidents or patterns of domestic violence). Accordingly, facilitators would be best equipped to offer optimal service when they are well skilled—sometimes with specialized training—to deal with a spectrum of offenses. As one participant noted: “There’s no crime too small or too big. Victims still need recognition and a chance to heal/recover.”

Expand Opportunities for Victims to Connect

Many reinforced that participation in the listening session in itself was deeply valuable. For some, the session seemed to broaden ideas of what is possible through restorative justice, while for others the session contributed to feeling more connected and less isolated within their experience of victimization. In at least two sessions, participants remarked that participation in the Listening Project session had a bigger impact on their well-being than the restorative justice process itself. Some remarked that this kind of connection had been a missing piece in their journey to wholeness since the crime. One participant mentioned that a priority could be to “enhance opportunities for “victim-victim” contact. This isn’t necessarily central to a restorative justice process, but it helps people through their trauma—victims meeting with each other. There is a lot of value and wisdom from people who have been through similar circumstances. It provides support. It can be provided through different stages. For example, victims who have been through restorative justice explaining [the risks and benefits] to those who are considering it. Another participant requested that there be access to “a restorative justice ‘alum’ group…if there were resources, that would be so great. This could help remove the isolation factor.” Given the many positive reflections regarding the opportunity for victims/survivors to connect and share their restorative justice stories with other victims, restorative justice programs may wish to consider how to provide this kind of group-dialogue opportunity as a regular occurrence as part of their service delivery.

Other comments, especially during the closing reflections of the session, were as follows:

  • “I appreciated hearing everyone’s story. It makes me feel not crazy!”
  • “I think it’s really important to be able to talk to people who’ve gone through something similar.”
  • “It…feels really good to be in a room of people [i.e. the listening session] talking about feelings and experiences.”
  • “I’m not alone. There’s victims out there everywhere. Everyone has issues.”
  • “More listening sessions—agreed! More opportunities for other victims to partake in a session like this.”
  • “Hearing everyone else’s stories is great. It makes me feel better.”
  • “This listening session is almost better than the restorative justice session! I feel so supported. I understand that I’m not alone.”

Sustain Funding

During the reflection portion of many listening sessions, participants consistently identified “more resource allocation for the work of restorative justice” as a priority action that systems could take to improve the victim experience. Participants acknowledged the work of the restorative justice programs and identified that a lack of funding/resources for these programs is a real issue. Many wanted to see more facilitators so that all victims would have access to this service: “A priority is that there needs to be more trained facilitators so that this can happen more often and become more timely.” These observations were usually hand-in-hand with participants remarking that the support, follow-up and abundant information they craved at various stages of the justice process comes with a price tag: “More resources are needed. This way, facilitators could have more time with victims so they can have all the time they need. These are time and intensive processes.” Related to this, one participant observed that the location in which restorative justice meetings were held was uninspiring, and commented that it is important for restorative justice programs to have access to comfortable, welcoming meeting spaces—and for programs to have access to funding to provide this. He stated: “These programs are living year to year, not knowing if they have funding.” Ultimately for restorative justice programs to adequately and meaningfully meet the needs of victims—in addition to all the other mandates these programs have—participants advised that they should be properly and sustainably funded to do so.

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