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'Restorative' justice: Use of apologies in criminal law

The juvenile and domestic relations court in Harrisonburg is involved in an experiment in “restorative justice.”

In certain cases chosen by the judge, the court brings offenders and their victims together with a neutral facilitator. During the meeting, the offender has an opportunity to apologize.

The offender and victim then work out a written restitution agreement, which the offender is to carry out under the supervision of a probation officer.

“Victim Offender Conferencing” offers an opportunity for resolution and reconciliation that is rarely found in the usual sentencing process, when the state, not the victim, imposes a fine, said Lawrence H. Hoover Jr., a Harrisonburg lawyer and mediator who is involved with the program.

In a way, VOC is tougher on the offender, Hoover said. “It would be a lot harder to sit down and face someone you’ve harmed” than to pay a fine to a court clerk, he said.

A brochure about the program acknowledges the difficulty. “We realize that facing a victim may not be an easy thing for you to do, but it has been helpful to many victims and offenders in getting over an offense,” it reads. “VOC presents you with that opportunity and the opportunity to turn this offense into a growing experience.”

The program is voluntaryeither side can decline to participate. Both victims and offenders can bring family members or other support people to the meeting.

If the parties cannot agree on restitution, an alternative sentence can be imposed or the victim can sue for damages.

The program was developed in 1975 in Elkhart, Ind., and has grown throughout North America and Europe. In Harrisonburg, it is operated through the non-profit Community Mediation Center.

Offenders are encouraged to prepare for the meeting in several ways, including:

* “Think through the offense, what happened, what has it meant to you, and how you feel about it now,” the brochure advises.

* “Be prepared to tell the victim what happened, to share your feelings and answer their questions about the offense, and to listen to what the offense has meant to them.”

* “Be prepared to present a plan for payment if you will not be able to pay the entire amount at the meeting. At least part of the restitution should be paid at the meeting.”

* “Be sure you know the time and place for the meeting. It is VERY IMPORTANT that everyone be at the meeting place at the agreed upon time.”

Hoover said that Harrisonburg lawyers and criminal justice professionals hope the program’s emphasis on restoration, as opposed to retribution, will help victims and offenders put the experience behind them and move on in a constructive direction.

“The judges love it,” Hoover said. The J&DR court in Prince William County now has put a similar program into place.

Hoover related a story he heard recently while attending a conference on forgiveness at the Fordham University School of Law in New York City.

Two neo-Nazis, ages 17 and 18, had been convicted of vandalizing an Iowa synagogue. The judge in the case invited the vandals and representatives of the congregation to participate in a victim-offender conference.

“No way,” the rabbi said at first. After a week of thinking about it, though, he changed his mind. A series of “incredibly intense” meetings ensued, Hoover said. During the process, the offenders did community service and paid the cost of the damage.

But something else happened, too. A relationship grew between the participants. They started to see each other as human beings, and the stereotypes broke down, Hoover said.

“It was a transforming thing for the rabbi, too,” he added.

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