The conferencing process can be divided into three parts: pre-conference preparation, the actual conference, and post-conference follow-up. In preparing for the conference, the conference facilitator will meet with each of the participants to discuss the process, answer questions, and ensure that they have realistic expectations for the conference. Afterwards, the facilitator may monitor the completion of any agreement arising from the process.
In the conference, the victim and offender each tell their story. They talk about the events of the crime and its subsequent impact on their lives. They can each ask questions of the other and in the process build a common understanding of the events that occurred. The victim supporters are able to talk about the crime, its impact on their loved one, and their own lives. The offender supporters show that the offender is not an isolated being, express how the offending behaviour has impacted them, and provide extra insight into who the offender is and how he/she came to commit the offence.
A key element of the conferencing process is re-integrative shaming. This means conveying disapproval of the behaviour while showing respect for the offender and working to reintegrate him/her back into the community of care. At the same time, the victim needs to have his/her experiences validated through the recognition of the harms he/she received. When each of the participants feels safe and fully included in the process, restorative conferencing can build an environment conducive to open, positive communication leading to this type of experience. This is reflected in the values underlying restorative processes:
mutual respect – recognizing the humanity of the other
collaboration – working together to find solutions
voluntary – allowing parties to decide whether or not to participate
- empowerment of participants – giving the participants the tools and space to develop solutions to their own problems.
Conferencing can be used at any stage of the criminal justice process, but is typically used relatively early. For example some police jurisdictions have developed conferencing programmes as an alternative to arrest and referral to the formal criminal justice system.
Conferencing developed in New Zealand as a response to the over-representation of Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) youth in the criminal justice system. In 1989, the Children Young Persons and their Families Act created new alternatives for responding to juvenile crime and child protection issues by placing more decision making authority in the hands of families and communities. The process has roots in traditional practices in Maori traditions. Since its introduction in New Zealand, conferencing has been implemented in Australia, the United States, England and Wales and Canada.