A restorative conference is a structured meeting between offenders, victims and both parties’ family and friends, in which they deal with the consequences of the crime or wrongdoing and decide how best to repair the harm. Neither a counseling nor a mediation process, conferencing is a victim-sensitive, straightforward problem-solving method that demonstrates how citizens can resolve their own problems when provided with a constructive forum to do so (O’Connell, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 1999).
Conferences provide victims and others with an opportunity to confront the offender, express their feelings, ask questions and have a say in the outcome. Offenders hear firsthand how their behavior has affected people. Offenders may choose to participate in a conference and begin to repair the harm they have caused by apologizing, making amends and agreeing to financial restitution or personal or community service work. Conferences hold offenders accountable while providing them with an opportunity to discard the “offender” label and be reintegrated into their community, school or workplace (Morris & Maxwell, 2001).
Participation in conferences is voluntary. After it is determined that a conference is appropriate and offenders and victims have agreed to attend, the conference facilitator invites others affected by the incident — the family and friends of victims and offenders (O'Connell, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 1999).
A restorative conference can be used in lieu of traditional disciplinary or justice processes, or where that is not appropriate, as a supplement to those processes (O’Connell, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 1999). In the Real Justice approach to restorative conferences, developed by Australian police officer Terry O’Connell, the conference facilitator sticks to a simple written script. The facilitator keeps the conference focused but is not an active participant. In the conference the facilitator provides an opportunity to each participant to speak, beginning with asking open-ended and affective restorative questions of the offender. The facilitator then asks victims and their family members and friends questions that provide an opportunity to tell about the incident from their perspective and how it affected them. The offenders’ family and friends are asked to do the same (O’Connell, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 1999).
Using the conference script, offenders are asked these restorative questions:
- “What happened?”
- “What were you thinking about at the time?”
- “What have you thought about since?”
- “Who has been affected by what you have done?”
- “What do you think you need to do to make things right?”
Victims are asked these restorative questions:
- “What did you think when you realized what happened?”
- “What impact has the incident had on you and others?”
- “What has been the hardest thing for you?”
- “What do you think needs to happen to make things right?”
Finally, the victim is asked what he or she would like to be the outcome of the conference. The response is discussed with the offender and everyone else at the conference. When agreement is reached, a simple contract is written and signed (O’Connell, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 1999).
Restorative conferencing is an approach to addressing wrongdoing in various settings in a variety of ways (O'Connell, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 1999):
- Conferencing can be employed by schools in response to truancy, disciplinary incidents, including violence, or as a prevention strategy in the form of role plays of conferences with primary and secondary school students.
- Police can use conferences as a warning or diversion from court, especially with first-time offenders.
- Courts may use conferencing as a diversion, an alternative sentencing process, or a healing event for victims and offenders after the court process is concluded.
- Juvenile and adult probation officers may respond to various probation violations with conferences.
- Correctional and treatment facilities will find that conferences resolve the underlying issues and tensions in conflicts and disciplinary actions.
- Colleges and universities can use conferences with residence hall and campus incidents and disciplinary violations.
- In workplaces, conferences address both wrongdoing and conflict.
Some approaches to restorative conferences, such as in Ulster in Northern Ireland, do not use the Real Justice script approach (Chapman, 2006). Victim-offender conferences do not rely on a script, either. Based on the earlier restorative justice model of victim-offender mediation, but widening the circle of participants, the victim-offender approach to conferences still relies on mediators who more actively manage the process (Amstutz & Zehr, 1998).
The IIRP prefers the Real Justice scripted model of conferencing because we believe it has the greatest potential to meet the needs of the stakeholders described in the Restorative Justice Typology. In addition, research shows that it consistently provides very high levels of satisfaction and sense of fairness for all participants (McCold & Wachtel, 2002). However, we do not mean to quibble with other approaches. As long as people experience a safe opportunity to have a meaningful discussion that helps them address the emotional and other consequences of a conflict or a wrong, the process is beneficial.