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What are we looking for?

October 4, 2009

For some, there is a punitive streak asking for complete acknowledgement of the harm done from offenders from the start. I see this in the question of “did you see remorse.” Or the accusation that I’m “too soft” after stopping a pre-conference in which the new facilitator was convinced that the defendant was lying so she attempted to trip him up to get the “truth” from him.


For others, there is a deep concern about not getting the process right, not asking an important question, or saying too much.  I see this in debriefings when the new volunteer seeks an explanation of every question or statement made. Of course there are the basic questions from the script, but generally each pre-conference has its own characteristics as I seek to understand my client and try to build trust with him/her. For those in training, this may seem confusing seeking a formula to apply to future cases.


Then, there are those who I see as being in ‘counseling mode’ or helpers. With these folks, the analysis tends to focus on identifying various issues in the offender’s life and wanting to deal with these. This can be seen in the question about past offending as well as a tendency to want to lecture clients about their decisions and steps for the future.


Now, I don’t want to be critical because I believe we all go through at least one of these stages – or at least I did. There is a certain amount of fear of failure or doing more harm in those first few conferences (a fear that never quite goes away). Each facilitator – experienced or new – wants conference participants to have a good experience and feel that it was time well used. But, there are no formulas beyond ensuring that the values of respect, communication, and personal responsibility are observed.


So, “what are we looking for?” This is a valid question as we have a responsibility to empower our clients so that they can take advantage of the process. Still, it is not an easy one to answer. For offenders, I look for acknowledgment of responsibility for the crime. I have had clients deny guilt even after either being found guilty or pleading guilty. If there is a denial of guilt, I often don’t recommend that the process go forward. Yet, if there is an acceptance of responsibility of crime – even if there is no sorrow or remorse — I feel that the process can go forward.


In responding to questions about remorse, I often say that I don’t need to see it. What I have learned is that the “process” is more than a series of meetings. It is also a journey of discovery for the participants. I’ve seen offenders move beyond simply accepting responsibility for an action to acknowledging the harm done after listening to those who have been harmed. The acknowledgment is usually expressed as an apology or other connection with the victim, victim supporters, or even a community representative during the conference. So, I’m looking for an offender who accepts responsibility for his/her actions.


In terms of the questions I ask, I am genuinely interested in the stories of those I work with. I always start with the basics from the conferencing script but at times the conversation takes on different characteristics. While always trying to stay on point with the crime and its impact, I tend to ask questions that ‘feel right’ simply to understand more of the story and provide the client I’m working with the opportunity to process more information.


I’m not there to decide truth or ‘gain a confession.’ In pre-conferences, I’m there to listen and understand stories, challenge from time to time with questions, provide information about the process, and treat each client with respect. In conferences, I’m there simply to provide space for communication between the parties.


In deciding whether or not the process was good, I listen to the participant comments. Such as a victim who said, “I think it helped the guy understand the situation from my side.” Or the offender who said, “It helped me think about what I did.” These comments are what I’m looking for. Participants who indicate they received what they needed from the process.


I would like to hear from other practitioners. How do you explain the process to new facilitators? What are you looking for?



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