From the article, it appears that the letter was a part of an “Intensive Supervision and Surveillance” order given to the young offender. Thankfully, the letter wasn’t sent to the victim. However, it did show one of the paradoxes of apology letters. On the surface, asking an offender to write an apology letter seems like a good idea. The very least they owe the victim is an apology. Yet, ordering someone to apologise doesn’t necessarily mean that the person feels the need to apologise or understand that he/she hurt someone with the behaviour. As Why Me? said, ordering a letter doesn’t allow for preparation or the journey of discovery that comes through restorative justice programmes.

As a restorative conferencing facilitator, I’ve seen lots of apology letters. These have resulted from restorative conferences between offenders (both juvenile and adult) and community representatives. This result is always through consensus of all the participants. Usually, the offender has stated that he/she wants to apologise. We never impose on any party in the restorative conference and I’ve seen offenders refuse to write such a letter. However, when there is an agreement for an apology letter it tends to come from the offender realising that the criminal behaviour has truly caused harm.

At the same time, we provide guidelines for writing an apology letter. This grew out of experiences with people who wanted to write a letter but weren’t sure what to say or how to go about saying it. The guidelines simply say to tell about the circumstances around the crime (without excuses), acknowledge the harm caused even mentioning the meeting with the community representative, and stating an apology for the actions and the harm caused. We caution not to ask for forgiveness as to do so places a burden on the victim.

In the last five years, I’ve seen very simple apology letters and some that were very powerful. Yet, when I think about apology letters,  one case in particular comes to mind.  Several youths were charged with stealing various signs – property signs, business signs, and road signs. In a conference with different community representatives, one of the youths volunteered to write an apology letter to all of the victims. When I reviewed the letter – I always review the letters– I was moved. We sent the apology letter to the victims in a sealed envelope with an accompanying letter to explain what was in the envelope.

Surprisingly, we received a phone call from one of the victims. I say surprisingly because we had never been able to make contact with this particular individual. We had sent two letters and tried phone calls, but had never received a response. We assumed that the person didn’t want to participate in the process, but we wanted to make sure that she knew the outcome. In her phone call, the victim thanked us for sending the apology letter, telling us how much it meant to her. She wanted us to communicate her forgiveness to the young offender and to tell him that “she was praying for him.” 

So, I’ve seen the power of a sincere apology letter and agree that there needs to be preparation for writing them. If for some reason this can’t be done through a direct meeting with the victim, there are different models of victim offender empathy courses that can assist with this work. We’ve seen through Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project® that interactions between prisons (and individuals on community sanctions) and victims of crime can have a powerful impact on offenders’ attitudes toward offending. This impact helps with the development of empathy and the desire to makes amends even if only through writing an apology letter. The new understanding gained through dialogue helps the offender to write the letter in a way that is sensitive and meaningful to the victim.

Having seen the power of an apology letter, I was sad to read the article from BBC News. Unfortunately, one bad example can cause cynicism and mean that hundreds of good examples are forgotten. However, the positive comments from Victim Support about restorative justice offer hope. For me, the real issue isn’t the offensively written letter, but the mechanism of forcing such actions. Restorative justice provides a different understanding for such letters and different mechanisms for preparing them in ways that can be both meaningful and powerful.