Source: (1999) Prison Service Journal (May): 19-20.Peter Walker examines a project that assists offenders in not only saying they are sorry for their offense, but in doing something to demonstrate their remorse: restitution. The Sycamore Tree Proj... Read More
The Sycamore Tree Project® brings together unrelated victims and offenders (that is, they are not each other’s victims and offenders). Using a curriculum guide prepared by PFI, a facilitator leads the participants in conversations about subjects related to crime and justice.
The programme can have profound effects on the victims and offenders. Many victims have reported receiving a measure of healing. Offenders confront, many times for the first time, the harm their actions have had on other people. Studies have shown that offenders who go through the Sycamore Tree Project® have significant changes in attitudes that make it less likely they will reoffend once released.
How does the Sycamore Tree Project® work?
The Sycamore Tree Project® is an intensive 5-8 week in-prison programme that brings groups of crime victims into prison to meet with groups of unrelated offenders. They talk about the effects of crime, the harms it causes, and how to make things right. Using a tested discussion guide, a trained facilitator opens up conversations about responsibility, confession, repentance, forgiveness, amends and reconciliation. These lead naturally into opportunities for the participants to express their experiences and feelings. Offenders explore ways of making restitution for the harm caused by their criminal behavior. Victims consider ways they can continue their journey toward healing and restoration. Finally, the group meets in public celebration.
What is the impact of the Sycamore Tree Project®?
“The Sycamore Tree Project® really makes you think. It’s not like any other course I’ve been on. It makes you think about feelings. It’s about what’s inside. It changes how you feel about victims and that. I’ve done the ETS [Enhanced Thinking Skills] and that’s easy. You know all the answers before you go in there. That doesn’t change anything. STP is different because it’s about what’s in here.” – Offender from England and Wales
“I witnessed a man murdering my father. I have been carrying this hatred and hurt for more than 25 years. For the first time, I can truly say that I have forgiven the man that murdered my father. The feeling is something I can’t describe.” – Crime victim from New Zealand
Evaluations of Sycamore Tree Project® show that it works. Sheffield Hallam University has conducted two large-scale studies in England, measuring changes in the attitudes of prisoners after participating in the program. The studies focused on five areas shown to be related to repeat offending: general attitudes toward offending, anticipation of re-offending, denial of victim harm, evaluation of crime as worthwhile, and perception of current life problems. The study found:
- Significant improvements in victim empathy for prisoner participants
- Strong evidence of statistically significant changes in attitudes to offending attributable to participation in Sycamore Tree Project
- Evidence that the program changed attitudes in ways known to reduce the likelihood of offending behavior.
This was true regardless of the prisoners’ sex, age or kind of penal institution. Because of the large sample size (5,000 prisoners), the researchers attributed the change to their participation in Sycamore Tree Project® and not to some other intervening factor.1
A New Zealand study found similar improvements in the attitudes of offenders participating in the program in that country.2
Is this a faith-based program?
The program gets its name from the story in Luke 19:1-10 about Jesus and Zacchaeus, a dishonest tax collector. Zacchaeus wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus but couldn’t see over the crowd. So he climbed a Sycamore Tree to get a better view. Jesus noticed him and stopped to talk. Out of that meeting came something unexpected: Zacchaeus repented and agreed to pay back his victims. Jesus then helped the crowd understand the reconciling power of justice that restores.
The program is faith based, not faith promoting. Participants from many religions have participated and benefited from it, as have those with no religious affiliation.
Where is the Sycamore Tree Project® being used?
2. Leon Bakker. 2005. Sycamore Tree Project impact evaluation for Prison Fellowship New Zealand. Unpublished manuscript available from the Centre for Justice & Reconciliation.