Wilson first grew intrigued with VOD when he was researching an article for Hope, a human interest magazine he published until 2003. In 2000, he attended training led by a pastor named David Doerfler, then with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Victim Services Division. From the first day he was hooked.Wilson spends months meeting with victims and helping them prepare before engaging in dialogue. He also meets ahead of time with offenders, through which he discovered a pivotal irony of our modern penal system: The disassociation of punishment from the events that cause it and the consequent emotional detachment of prisoners.
He began working cases in Texas, which operates one of the oldest and largest VOD programs in the country. (At the time, six states offered VOD programs, Wilson says: Today, just over half the state corrections departments in the country support VOD programs.)
The programs are a delicate subject with state correctional officials. Some report widespread satisfaction among participants, but others refuse to discuss VOD at all.
As the mother of a victim, [Janet] Connors welcomed a chance to take part in VOD. "Don't take my choice away," she says. "We [victims] are used to getting upset – our whole lives have been upset. But don't take away my choice to meet with the person who caused me harm."
The jailed offenders receive no shortened sentences or any kind of credit for their involvement. No dialogue occurs if an offender doesn't fully accept responsibility for the crime. What they do get is an opportunity to think more deeply about what they've done.That last bit is an important observation. Under a restorative justice model, offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions in more meaningful ways. Under the traditional system, the closest anyone comes to taking responsibility comes during the brief moments of a plea bargain before a judge, after which a prisoner may spend decades locked up without being reminded of their offense.
Wilson also meets ahead of time with offenders. "When I start out [with an offender], many of them will say, 'I don't even know if I have feelings,' " Wilson says. "Of course they have feelings, but that's how far removed they are from them. Describing their feelings is new to them.
"This is the problem with our system: These guys can do their whole sentence without ever having to think or talk about their crime. We do not insist [that] that person think about what they have done."
Meanwhile, the VOD program helpfully gives victims an opportunity to confront those who've harmed them and get answers to the many questions that swirl around the aftermath of tragedy. The story reminds me of Howard Zehr's comment that the current criminal justice system denies victims almost everything they need. At a 2007 conference, he argued that if one set out to design a system to create post traumatic stress for a victim, they couldn't do better than a court of law. VOD and other restorative justice approaches aim to promote a more victim-centered space where their needs can be met, to the extent possible, beyond mere punishment of the perpetrator.
See the website for Wilson's group, Just Alternatives, for more on the subject.