Conferencing emerged in 1989 with the passage of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act in New Zealand. The Act established a new means of dealing with juveniles: rather than processing them through the courts with the help of the police and child protective services, the Act gave primary decision-making authority to the family of the youth offender to decide, with the input of the victim and other community support groups, the appropriate sanction for the child.
The roots of conferencing are found in the whanau conference of the Maori, aboriginal peoples to New Zealand. With their strong extended family and kinship relationships, the Maori had been using whanau conferences as a means of dealing with their own youth. In fact, the passage of the Act grew out of dissatisfaction of the Maori with the dominant, Western traditional juvenile justice system which increasingly stripped them of responsibility for their own youth.
In New South Wales, Australia, Conferencing programmes have been adapted for use in police cautioning schemes for juvenile offenders. Implementing the Children Act of 1989, England and Wales incorporate Conferencing principles and programmes into their child/social welfare scheme. In Canada, Conferencing programmes exist for child protection, family violence and juvenile offending. They have been established in a number of localities in the United States since their introduction in 1995.
Conferencing programmes are similar to victim-offender reconciliation/ mediation programmes, in that they involve the victim and offender in an extended conversation about the crime and its consequences. However, Conferencing programmes also include the participation of families, community support groups, police, social welfare officials and attorneys in addition to the victim and offender.
Conferencing programmes involve this variety of groups to demonstrate to the juvenile offender that many people care for him/her, and to instil in the offender a sense of accountability to his/her family, social circle and society. In this "relational matrix" all the parties must agree to the plan for reparation, which increases commitment to it as a just resolution since all interested parties are involved. This community consensus on the resolution, and condemnation of the unacceptable conduct, then results in norm and value clarification. Important to this programme is recognition of the constructive value of "reintegrative shame" (as opposed to disintegrative shame or stigmatization), whereby the community denounces the offender's conduct as unacceptable but affirms their commitment to the offender and their active desire to reintegrate him/her back into society.
Conferencing is used only when the offender admits guilt (or in some jurisdictions, admits liability or declines to deny guilt). It is not used to determine guilt, and at any time during the process the offender may choose to bring the conference to a halt and proceed to court for a traditional determination of guilt or innocence.
The Conference process can be thought of as involving discrete phases: preparation, the conference, and post-conference monitoring.
During preparation, a trained facilitator receives a referral report and consults with juvenile justice officials to become familiar with the case. This gives the facilitator the opportunity to become acquainted with the parties and to identify and discuss any needs of the parties and purposes of the conference.
During the conference, the offender begins by telling his/her side of the story, with the victim then subsequently doing likewise. Both then have a chance to express their feelings about the events and circumstances surrounding the crime. Each may then direct questions to one another, followed by questions posed by their respective families. The offender and his/her family then meet privately to discuss reparation, thereafter presenting an offer to the victim and others in attendance. Negotiations continue in the group until consensus is reached. The agreement is put to writing with payment/monitoring schedules included.
In the post-conference phase, the facilitator monitors completion of the agreement and locates needed resources for youth or family when needed. It the agreement cannot be successfully completed with the facilitator's intervention, the case is returned to the courts for further action.
Conferencing programmes appear to show promising returns in juvenile corrections with victim satisfaction rates around 90 percent, restitution agreements reached in 95 percent of the cases, and restitution completion without police follow-up in 90 percent of the cases. Qualitative studies suggest that Conferencing programmes may have helped offenders develop empathy for their victims; evoked change in the offender's behaviour; and improved relationships between the families and the police and strengthened support networks for the offender.
This document prepared by Christopher Bright. Copyright Prison Fellowship International.