Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Meeting the murderer: Profile of victim-offender dialogue facilitator

See an interesting article from the Christian Science Monitor about a boat builder from Maine who runs a non-profit facilitating victim-offender dialogue (VOD) between violent criminals and their victims or their families, which is an idea derived from "restorative justice" models. It describes how Texas' program launched his interest:
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.

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."
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.
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.

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."
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.

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.


Prison Doc said...

Interesting. I'd never heard of this done formally; just John Paul II and Mehmet Ali-Agca.

Anonymous said...

Victim/offender mediation (similar to a VOD) is part of the Texas Crime Victiom's Bill of Rights. (see link, below)

But prosecutors would have to actually work if victims started requesting it, so no doubt they are never made aware of it.

Some non-profit dispute resolution centers (Harris County DRC used to do it, but they're lazy now) offer the same thing for minor crimes, which offers a better chance at restitution for the victim.

This could help victims a great deal, if only it was made available more widely.


Anonymous said...


Link: http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/CR/htm/CR.56.htm#A


David E said...

The Bridge to Life program is now being offered by volunteers in a few TDCJ units. It is not exactly the same program as VOD described here, but it has similarities, especially in its effect on offenders.

Stephanie said...

11:41 - In this matter prosecutors don't have anything to do with it. The Victim Offender Mediation/Dialogue program is handled through TDCJ victim services and they seem to be hanging in there with it in spite of budget cuts. The victim does have to request it before the offender is contacted and a determination made as to his/her appropriateness. There's very compelling empirical data supporting programs of this nature.

Stephanie said...

I looked up the study I'm most familiar with that examines the Texas and Ohio mediation/dialogue programs. Among other findings 85% of the victims and 97% of the offenders said they would recommend VOD to others in similar circumstances; 80% of the victims reported that the experience had a "profound impact" on their lives including personal growth and healing, having obtained answers to their questions, experiencing offender remorse and ownership of harm, and strengthened spirituality. It's unfortunate that victim needs aren't better met by the CJ process but at least there are a few programs that attempt to address those needs in other ways.

Michael Jewell said...

In 1970, at the age of 23, I escaped from a Kentucky prison along with another convict. We traveled to Denison, Texas where we shot and killed a store owner, Charles Freddie Wright, during a robbery gone bad. We were drinking and taking amphetamines, and had not slept for days. Though I was 23, I had the mentality of an adolescent.
Before we approached the store I never dreamed anyone would be hurt, let alone killed. I realize how absurd that must sound, but I had once robbed a store with an unloaded pistol, and another with a pistol that was broken. I believed that if you pointed a gun at someone and demanded their money, they would automatically hand it over. But sometimes it’s not so simple.
I was sentenced to death for my part in that crime. I spent three years on death row until the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972. My sentence was commuted to life and I went on to serve 40 consecutive years before being paroled in June of 2010.
My single-man cell on death row measured 5 x 9 feet. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. I had to meet myself, and I did not like the person I had become. I often thought about the man I killed. Court testimony had described him as a pillar of his community, a good and decent family man . I had taken a husband from a wife, a father from his children. When the realization and significance of these facts set in, it almost drove me insane. To say that I was remorseful is a profound understatement. I had an epiphany, of sorts, that sent me on a long series of flashbacks, recalling all of my transgressions against others and what they must have felt as a consequence. I cried a lot in those days, but I was transformed into a better person because of the experience.
I was never offered an opportunity to confront the surviving victims of my crime, except in my mind. But I can think of nothing that would be more difficult. How do you look into the eyes of a wife, a son, or daughter, and say, “I’m so very sorry for depriving you of something so precious”? Tears come to my eyes just to think of it. How can you ask their forgiveness when you’re not sure you’ve forgiven yourself? But I do think such programs are valuable.
During the 40 years I spent in Texas prison, not once was I interviewed by a psychologist concerning my crime. No one even ask me if I realized what I did was wrong, or if I could/would do it again. My conscience awoke on its own, and I profited from its counsel. But that’s not true in all cases. It took 5 trips to reform school and three to prison , the last to death row, to jolt me awake. Should not there be an effort to assist inmates through this awakening process?

Anonymous said...

I know this is an older post but I just ran across it so it's new to me and I just wanted to address Anonymous.

As I am a victim of kidnap, sexual assault and robbery in the state of Texas, I can tell you with 100& certainty that Victim/Offender Mediation is made mention of several times through out the criminal hearing to the victims and their families. It is 'widely available' but kept from the general public and the media as to protect the victim and, of course, the criminal... because criminals often get more rights than victims.