...Restorative justice processes are highly conversational, requiring young offenders to give coherent accounts of their wrongdoing, as well as processing and understanding emotional information conveyed verbally and nonverbally by their victim(s). What, then, should be made of the evidence that in Australia, one in two young offenders has expressive and receptive language skills that fall well below what could be expected on the basis of their age and IQ (Snow & Powell 2011a, 2008)? What does this evidence mean for a young person’s capacity to give an effective account of their wrongdoing and to effectively express their emotions (eg remorse, regret, embarrassment, sorrow)? When difficulties with communication manifest as minimal verbal responses, shoulder shrugs and poor eye contact, what impact does this have on victims’, supporters’ and police perceptions about the success of the conference? These are important questions that cannot be answered by existing evidence, but demand attention at research, policy and practice levels.

As an illustration of the potential difficulty young offenders (especially males) have in engaging in effective verbal communication during restorative justice conferences, observational and interview data with a number of young offenders who attended a youth justice conference in southeast Queensland during 2005–06 is drawn on. These data were gathered for another project, the Restorative Justice and Reoffending (RJR) project (Hayes, McGee & Cerruto 2011) and are useful in illustrating key points made herein. The RJR project is a program of qualitative research, which aims to learn how young people know and understand restorative justice interventions and how this knowledge may relate to change in future offending behaviour. Offender-focused observational data were gathered for 68 young offenders attending 48 youth justice conferences. In-depth interview data were gathered for 50 young offenders attending these conferences. Interviews occurred approximately one week following a conference. The observations focused on young offenders’ behaviour during the conference and in particular, their verbal and nonverbal communication. The interviews explored how young offenders felt about various aspects of the conferences.

Observers recorded a monologue within 24 hours of their conference observation, recounting with as much detail as possible exactly what occurred during the conference. The transcribed monologue was then used to complete a detailed systematic conference observation protocol. Following is an excerpt from an observation monologue, illustrating the challenges faced by some young offenders in giving an effective account of the circumstances surrounding their offending behaviour.

My general observation with the storytelling phase was that [the conference convenor] had to suggest or assist these young people in telling their story. These three young male offenders appeared rather inarticulate. Lots of one word or one sentence answers and at times, found it difficult to formulate an answer to questions about intent, about circumstance, about feelings, what was going through their mind at the time. A lot of answers were ‘I don’t know’, ‘I wasn’t thinking’ etc and [conference convenor] would suggest possible responses to which the young people would agree (RJR case 005a-c).

One of the aims of the in-depth interviews with the young offenders in the RJR project was to determine the extent to which the things young offenders said and did in their conferences reflected what they were thinking and feeling at the time. In Box 1 are excerpts from the interviews with young offenders 005a and 005b (005c declined an interview). These narratives (albeit brief, are consistent with our thesis that these young offenders were challenged by the communication demands they faced) illustrate the paucity of skills with respect to communicating emotions and feelings.

These excerpts (contained in Box 1) illustrate the lack of facility that some young offenders have with verbal communication, as well as their difficulties identifying and describing emotions, whether their own or those of others, in ways that may well be indicative of alexithymia. For example, when asked how he felt when he walked into the room with the other conference participants, 005a replied ‘I don’t really know’. Similarly, 005b replied ‘I don’t know really’ when asked how meeting the victim made him feel. Also, when asked how hearing the victim’s story made him feel, 005b replied, ‘no, I don’t know’. Furthermore, the often one word or few word answers to interview questions offered by these two young offenders highlights the difficulty some young people have with verbal communication. This was also described recently by researchers conducting fieldwork with young people (Dwyer & Hayes 2011), who described young people’s responses to interview questions as ‘the grunt’.

...In view of the high probability that young offenders entering conferences will have compromised language skills, it is important to develop valid, efficient and systematic measures of OLC so that necessary pre-conference assessments can be made. With a better understanding of young offenders’ language competence, young offenders, victims and other conference participants might be better prepared for the conference process. Ideally, this enhanced preparation will help conference participants develop realistic expectations around young offenders’ oral language capacities, improve levels of overall satisfaction for victims and lead to better outcomes; for example, better communication within the conference process, higher compliance rates with agreements and lower reoffending rates.

Read the full paper