Restorative justice from a survivor's perspective
Dec 14, 2009
by Penny Beerntsen
Note: this article originally appeared as a comment responding to a posting by Lisa Rea. We were concerned that many readers may have missed it and so are posting it as its own entry. We are grateful to Penny Beerntsen for her willingness to share her extraordinary story.
As a survivor of a violent crime, I am a firm believer in the power of restorative justice programs to transform both the victim and the offender. I learned about victim offender conferencing shortly after surviving a violent sexual assault and attempted murder. Although I was unable to meet with my offender, as he had not taken responsibility for his crime, I began participating in victim impact panels inside prisons. Although I was not speaking directly to my offender, I was telling my story to others who were incarcerated for violent crimes, including rape. Much of my healing took place inside maximum security prisons as a result of the dialogue I engaged in with these offenders. If someone had told me at the time of the crime that this would be the case, I would have told that individual they were crazy! I participated in these panels because I thought I had something to offer the offenders. I learned that the process, if properly conducted, is mutually beneficial.
One of the things I always told offenders was that when we do something which harms another, we need to apologize for our harmful actions. I emphasized that the ultimate apology is how we live the rest of our lives (have we learned from the harm we caused so that we don't repeat the act?).
Almost two decades after I was assaulted I learned I had misidentified my assailant, who spent over 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Following the advice I always gave to offenders, I sent him an apology letter and subsequently met with him in person to apologize. In this victim/offender conference, I was the offender. I don't think I would have been able to accept the fact that I had made an error if I had not been involved for so many years with the restorative justice movement.
I am also a trained facilitator of v/o conferences, including those involving crimes of severe violence. As Lisa Rea points out in her article, the key is in proper preparation of both the victim and the offender. This often includes multiple meetings with each party separately before they are brought together. If any red flags appear during these pre-conference meetings, the facilitator may decide the conference should not take place.
In addition, there are ground rules which prohibit such behaviors as shouting matches. Although both parties are encouraged to express their emotions honestly, this must be done in a way which does not cause harm to either party. The facilitator has the power to stop the conference at any time if it appears that additional harm will occur.
Victim/offender conferencing is just one manifestation of restorative justice. I believe it should always be victim initiated, but that it is beneficial to both parties involved. If an offender better understands the harm he/she has caused, he/she is less likely to reoffend in the future. That in itself is a victim service!