Victim Offender Conferencing (VOC) falls under the broader umbrella of Restorative Justice. Howard Zehr, in his (1990) book Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, states that viewed through a restorative lens, “crime is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. Justice involves the victim, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation and reassurance.”
Victim Offender Conferencing was the focus of a community forum held in November. It was sponsored by Shalom Community Church, Challenging Racism and the Social Justice Council of the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, Healing Communities, and Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. The guest speaker was Fred Van Liew. Fred is a former prosecuting attorney who, after nearly 20 years as Bureau Chief with the Polk County [Iowa] Attorney’s Office prosecuting offenders, realized that “we can do much better when it comes to how we respond to crime and those who commit them.” Fred is retired and has spent the last three years traveling the country explaining how Restorative Justice practices, such as VOC, are strengthening community safety, providing support and compensation for victims, aiding in the reintegration of offenders, and promoting reconciliation among victims, offenders, and the community.
The purpose of the community forum was to create more awareness of these practices and to engage more folks to become active participants as planners, facilitators, and/or to spread the word that there are alternatives to the more traditional approach in criminal justice systems across the country. The traditional approach only asks what law is broken, who did it, and what punishment is deserved. The offender is frequently punished while not held fully accountable to make reparation to those injured, which makes it more difficult for the offender to be reintegrated into the community. In addition, the victim is left out of the picture and lacks the opportunity to have many of their questions or concerns answered. This makes it difficult, and usually impossible, for overall healing and change to take place for the victim, offender and/or the community.
The first formal VOC program in North America was started in 1974 in Ontario, Canada. The first program in the United States was started in Elkhart, Indiana some 30 years ago. Since that time many programs have been instituted and there is a good evidence of positive results. Perhaps the best way to give some sense of how it works is with a story. I take the following story from a 2012 letter requesting support for the Elkhart Center for Community Justice:
About five years ago, a teenager broke into the home of a woman who lived alone. The boy was later arrested. As a new caseworker in the Center for Community Justice’s Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) program, I facilitated a conversation between the boy and his victim. Both were skeptical. But, as the two talked, an amazing thing happened: they found that neither was what the other had assumed them to be, and in fact they had common ground. The victim had questions that could only be answered by the offender; these were answered. The victim not only found a way to forgiveness, but found that, rather than vengeance or punishment, what she wanted was for the boy to become a productive member of the community. In 2012 this boy completed college with two bachelor’s degrees and plans to continue his studies. The young man wrote to his victim, “Reporting my grades made me feel like you were actually interested in my doing well and I thank you for that. I would also like to thank you for having the courage to meet with me 5 years ago. If I were in your position I am not sure I would be able to face someone who had committed crimes against me, to talk to them, and try to make sure they do well like you did for me. I wish you and yours nothing but the best.”
A VOC Steering Committee has been formed to forward the work of increasing awareness and support in the community for Victim Offender Conferencing. Their initial focus in Washtenaw County will be to work with the juvenile justice system.
In addition, The Honorable Judge Timothy Connors (22nd Circuit Court,) and Susan Butterwick, J.D., have begun the Peacemaking Court Project in Washtenaw County in collaboration with the Dispute Resolution Center. This project is similar in concept to VOC. The VOC Steering Committee is considering how VOC can collaborate with the Peacemaking Court Project and advance both efforts.
Anyone interested in learning more or participating in some way, contact [email protected]