What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice is a way of looking at crime that involves victims and the community to a higher degree than traditional approaches. Rather than simply punishing the offender, restorative justice addresses the actual direct harm that occurred as a result of the crime as well as the ripple effects that often span out to include victims, victims' families, offenders' families, businesses and the community.
Howard Zehr, a noted criminal justice consultant and author, describes restorative justice this way: "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 ... and reassurance. For an offender, it forms an intrinsic link between the act (or crime) and the consequence (the harm to people and communities) and encourages making things right to the extent that it is possible to do so."
Some people are critical of restorative justice, claiming that it is soft on crime; they believe that punishment should be the only focus. But many offenders report that restorative justice approaches are often more difficult than simply prison time. This is likely because a restorative justice approach challenges offenders to see the real human cost of what they have done. Restorative justice asserts that the offender accept accountability for their act of crime by taking responsibility, making amends to the victim and community, and building competencies to assure that new crimes will not occur.
A restorative approach to crime also ensures that the victim's experience and needs are central to the process. A crime is not simply an act against the state, or a violation of a state statute; it is a destructive act against people and their community and the harm is real.
The DOC believes that all restorative justice practices be victim-centered and offender-sensitive. This means that victims are at the focus of restorative efforts, and that victims will determine how they wish to participate and what they will request from the offender.
Some offenders are court-ordered to write apology letters to their victims. Other offenders are personally motivated to do so, without being directed by a court-order.
Apology letters that have been court-ordered are generally sent to the victim-witness coordinator in the district attorney's office for the community where the victim resides, or where the crime occurred. From there, the process varies from county to county, but victim-witness coordinators will usually either forward the letter to the victim, or contact the victim to say that the court-ordered apology letter has been received.
Apology letters that are written without a court-order are sent to the DOC's Office of Victim Services & Programs (OVSP) in Madison where the letter is screened for any inappropriate content. If the apology letter contains potentially harmful content, it will be returned to the offender. If the letter is appropriate, OVSP will keep it and process it further.
OVSP staff will query to see if the victim to whom the apology letter was written is enrolled with the OVSP (to use the VOICE system). If the victim is enrolled, OVSP will send the enrolled victim a notification letter explaining that an apology letter was received and will let the victim make the decision whether or not to actually request the letter. This is done because staff cannot anticipate which victims would appreciate an apology letter, and which victims would feel re-victimized by receiving such a letter. The OVSP will hold the apology letter indefinitely, or until it has been requested by the victim.
If the victim to whom the apology letter was written is not enrolled with the OVSP, the letter will be received by the OVSP, will be logged and stored indefinitely. If there is a point in time when the victim contacts OVSP for any reason, OVSP staff will tell the victim that there is an apology letter on file, should he or she ever wish to see it.
If you want to know if there is an apology letter on file for you, please call us at 1-800-947-5777 to inquire.
Victim impact classes
Many of the DOC's prisons and correctional centers offer victim impact classes to inmates. These classes have varying content and program titles, including Victim Impact Programs, Challenges and Possibilities, and Restorative Justice. They differ in length and frequency, but all have a common theme: No More Victims. A woman named Lynn who is crime victim and a frequent speaker at these victim impact classes explains, "We can't get them here (pointing to her head) to change their behavior, unless we can first get them here (pointing to her heart)." Her message speaks to the value of a victim impact class being a unique opportunity for offenders to hear from actual victims and survivors the impact the crime had on their lives, the lives of their families, and how that impact does not necessarily diminish over time, or self-resolve simply because the offender has been sentenced to prison. In prisons where it is difficult to enlist the help of victim speakers, group facilitators use videos of victim speakers.
Victim impact classes require a commitment on the part of the offender and most prisons have a waiting list of offenders wishing to enroll into the class. An offender can be removed from the class for many reasons, including class absences or institution misconduct.
Victim impact classes follow a curriculum, have a strict code of ethics and are led by at least two group facilitators. Community members often participate in the groups, either as volunteer co-facilitators, or as observers. Most victim impact classes are done in a circle, with offenders and non-offenders sitting together, to create a non-judgmental environment in the hopes of increasing trust and, ultimately, offender honesty and accountability.
Victim offender dialogue
Victim offender dialogue is another victim-centered option in which the victim/survivor may meet, face to face with the offender, along with a neutral third-party facilitator. The process works toward assisting in the healing journey of victim/survivors while educating offenders on the depth and breadth of the harm they have caused.
Some victims wish to do this because they need to ask questions that only the offender could answer, a need that is particularly seen in homicide cases. Other victims wish to meet with the offender to tell him/her how the crime has impacted their life, and sometimes even to discuss forgiveness.
It is important to note that the dialogue process in Wisconsin can only be initiated at the request of a victim/survivor. If an offender wishes to request a dialogue, he or she cannot do so, but might instead be encouraged to write a letter of apology.
If a victim or survivor requests a victim offender dialogue, the request is referred to a neutral, third party facilitator to coordinate from the beginning, through the preparation, the actual dialogue, and then debriefing. A victim offender dialogue can take as long as one year to coordinate, and the prevailing opinion is that the preparation that goes into a dialogue is directly related to the victim-reported satisfaction of the dialogue afterwards. Since most victim offender dialogues happen only once, and since the goal for most victims who request a dialogue is communication, the more preparation the victim has, the better he or she will be able to convey their feelings during this emotional event. The preparation done with the offender is often an indicator of how well he or she will be able to disclose details of the crime, or be receptive and sensitive to the feelings of the victim.
Part of the preparation for a victim offender dialogue is screening of the offender. Certain offenders are not appropriate for a dialogue, based on their offense, uncompleted treatment, denial of their involvement in the crime, and potential to revictimize the victim.
Victim offender dialogue is completely voluntary on the part of the victim and the offender, and either party may withdraw from the process at any time. Given the voluntary nature of these dialogues, they are not always possible to do.
Victim speaking opportunities
Some crime victims and/or their families find it helpful to tell the story of how their lives have been affected by crime to groups of criminal justice staff or offenders. There are often opportunities to speak to groups within the DOC:
For you to know:
- Victim speakers are incorporated into staff training. For example, victim speakers are part of the initial probation/parole agent basic training. This helps agents understand the impact of crime on victims and their families so that they will be sensitive to victim issues in the work that they do.
- Victim Impact Programs for offenders are structured classes that are run by DOC staff and trained volunteers. Victim speakers are an extremely important part of these programs. Adult institutions (prisons), juvenile facilities, and several probation and parole offices conduct victim impact programs that incorporate victim speakers.
Speaking to groups about the impact of a crime is an individual decision. Some victims have found this to be a healing experience. Others find it to difficult to speak to groups this way. It is sometimes helpful to attend a program and hear a victim speaker tell their story. This is a way to get a first hand idea of what it is like to speak to a group and help you make a decision. Whatever decision you make is right for you.
- Speakers may be offered a stipend (payment) to help cover expenses incurred by speaking, such as gas and time off from work. It is also a way to show our appreciation for sharing your personal experience as a victim or survivor of crime.
- Victims do not need to use their names when speaking to a group.
- The offender who perpetrated against you or your family will not be present.
- An OVSP victim advocate is available to accompany victims and provide support when speaking.
If you would like to learn more about speaking opportunities, call OSVP at 1-800-947-5777.