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Real People, Real Stories: The Challenges Facing a Juvenile Probation Officer in Restorative Justice

Restorative justice practitioners who are part of the criminal justice system can face role conflicts. In this article, Lance F. Kelley describes his experience as a probation officer facilitating restorative justice conferences.

I have been a Juvenile Probation Officer in Loudoun County, Virginia for more than 5 years now. I also run the Restorative Justice Program for the Juvenile Probation unit.  I am a trained restorative justice conference facilitator as well as a trainer in Restorative Justice Conferencing.  Having come from the justice side of things, victim/offender conference facilitation was initially challenging for me.  Fortunately, I have surrounded myself with seasoned professionals in this field and have continued to hone my skills through ongoing training.  

My caseload varies from Class 1 Misdemeanors to Class 4 Felonies, from juveniles that have shoplifted to juveniles who have committed sexual offenses.  All of our conferences are co-facilitated, which is a requirement of our program.  Co-facilitation not only enhances the conference experience but adds another vantage point to the conference. The goal of our conferencing is to hold the offender accountable and have him/her enter into an agreement to solidify that accountability.

I have found pre-conference work to be a key in the restorative justice conferences we do in our unit.  In addition to preparing the parties, this work also allows me to answer the question “Can I run this conference and be neutral?”  In order to do this, I have to be able to conduct myself as a facilitator rather than a probation officer.  There are times, such as when the juvenile has had prior contact with our office, that I feel I can’t step out of my probation officer role when I run the conference. 

An example of this involved a young man who had previously been given the opportunity to have his charge diverted if he complied with our shoplifting program. Unfortunately he didn’t comply. I felt he had already been given a chance, but the decision was made to give him another chance without any formal charges. I pulled in another experienced facilitator to lead the conference and I took the secondary facilitator role.  In this role, I typically outline legal consequences to the offender if his or her case were to go to court. In that way, I was able to remain involved in the conference, while staying  more in my juvenile probation officer role.

On the other hand, if I decide I can step out of my probation officer role and lead the conference, I am able to use different skills. For instance, as lead facilitator, I apply my active listening skills to the participants’ recounting of the event or events that led to the criminal offense. This role brings the human side of the offense to the surface. The emotional impact of the events on both the victim and offender makes the offense very real for those involved in the conference. I find myself engaged with the victims’ response and the offenders’ reaction. This marks the start of the healing process for all parties involved.

This process allows the victim to decide what they want the offender to do to start repairing the harm.  The victim becomes actively involved in creating the written agreement for the offender to follow.  This interaction gives the victim a say in what happens to the offenders’ case.

In addition, I have to look at the case very carefully to see if “my own personal stuff” may impede the conference. Everyone has “stuff”; to successfully run a conference, you just have to own it and be able to handle it when it comes up. As a good restorative justice facilitator, you owe it to the victim and offender to know when you should give a case to another trained facilitator to handle.  This will aid in providing a positive conference experience for both. Again, by conducting the pre-conference interviews, I can quickly determine whether my own personal issues will impede my ability to run the conference in a neutral way.

For instance, I had one case involving an offender who committed a sex offense against a six-year-old female.  At the time of this case my daughter was six, and I naturally wondered how I would react when meeting this offender for the first time.  After several phone conversations with the offender’s family, I had them come into my office to finalize the pre-conference work. 

When they arrived, I observed a twelve-year-old boy who was scared to death about the trouble he was in and seemed genuinely remorseful for what he had done.  My questions to him were: 1) do you want help? and 2) if so, will you be willing to take responsibility for what you have done?  His answer to both questions was yes.  Because of his demeanor and responses to my questions, I felt I could successfully facilitate this conference in the lead role.  I am pleased to say that after a year and a half of treatment this offender has not re-offended and continues with counseling.

I encourage anyone who wants to be a Restorative Justice Facilitator to 1) get formal training and 2) observe as many conferences as possible before you take on the facilitation role.

If you would like further information on our program please feel free to e-mail me at lkelley@loudoun.gov or call me at 703-771-5568.

Lance Kelley
October 2006

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