Restorative justice places a high value on having the victim and offender encounter one another. This encounter might be done directly in a meeting between the two (and perhaps others as well) with a facilitator assisting them. It can be done indirectly through exchange of letters, videos and by messages delivered by a third party.
The programmes that make encounters possible -- victim offender mediation, conferencing, circles, and so on -- are strongly identified with restorative justice. Stories of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation forcefully remind us of the relational wounds caused by crime and the need to address those. Encounter, however, is not the only dimension of restorative justice, and is certainly not an essential element of a restorative response (or else there could be no restorative response when a party is not identified or is unwilling/unable to meet the other).
A restorative encounter has five interwoven elements: meeting, narrative, emotion, understanding, and agreement. Each of these elements contributes to the strength of the encounter. One that features all five elements will be most powerful in helping parties move toward healing.
In mediation, conferencing, and circles, the victims meet with their own offenders; with victim-offender impact panels, the meetings are between representative victims and offenders. If the meeting is done through exchange of letters, tapes or videos, or if it is done through indirect communication, the "meeting" will not involve face-to-face confrontation. Nevertheless, what takes place during any form of the meeting directly engages the other party, in contrast with court proceedings where at most each party will only observe the other's statements to judge or jury.
At the meeting, the parties talk to one another; they tell their stories. In their narrative they describe what happened to them, how that has affected them, and how they view the crime and its consequences. This is a subjective rather than objective account and, consequently, it has integrity both to the speaker and to the listener.
Narrative permits the participants to express and address emotion. Crime can produce powerful emotional responses that obstruct the more dispassionate pursuit of justice to which courts aspire. Encounter programmes let those emotions be expressed. This can result in healing for both victims and offenders. All of the encounter programmes described above recognize the importance of emotion in training facilitators, preparing participants and establishing ground rules. As a result, crime and its consequences are addressed not only rationally but emotionally as well.
The use of meeting, narrative and emotion leads to understanding. As David Moore has observed about conferencing, "in this context of shared emotions, victim and offender achieve a sort of empathy. This may not make the victim feel particularly positive about the offender but it does make the offender seem more normal, less malevolent." Likewise, for offenders, hearing the victims' story not only humanizes their victims but also can change the offenders' attitude about their criminal behaviour.
Reaching this understanding establishes a productive foundation for agreeing on what happens next. Encounter programmes seek a resolution that fits the immediate parties rather than focusing on the precedential importance of the decision for future legal proceedings. Encounter, therefore, opens up the possibility of designing a uniquely crafted resolution reflecting the circumstances of the parties. Further, they do this through a cooperative process rather than an adversarial one, through negotiation that searches for a convergence of the interests of victim and offender by giving them the ability to guide the outcome.
Do these elements—meeting, narrative, emotion, understanding and agreement—yield reconciliation when combined? Not necessarily. But they will increase the parties' ability to see each other as persons, to respect each other, to identify with the experiences of the other, and to arrive at an agreement. In other words, some movement toward reconciliation will have occurred. As Claassen and Zehr have noted:
Hostility and reconciliation need to be viewed as opposite poles on a continuum. Crime usually involves hostile feelings on the part of both victim and offender. If the needs of victim and offender are not met and if the victim-offender relationship is not addressed, the hostility is likely to remain or worsen. If however, victim and offender needs are addressed, the relationship may be moved toward the reconciliation pole, which in itself is worthwhile.
David Moore, "Evaluating Family Group Conferences," in David Biles and Sandra McKillop, eds., Criminal Justice Planning and Coordination: Proceedings of a Conference Held 19-21 April 1993, Canberra (1994), 222, at 213.
Ron Claassen and Howard Zehr, VORP Organizing: A Foundation in the Church (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Office of Criminal Justice, 1989), 5.
This article was abstracted from Van Ness, Daniel and Karen Heetderks Strong. 2003. "Chapter 4: Encounter." In, Restoring Justice. 2nd. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing. Used by permission from Anderson Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from the publisher.