Terry O''Connell, the Australian police sergeant who created the scripted version of conferencing in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, discusses the evolution of conferencing and the necessary elements for its continuing success and expansion. Presented at the First North American Conference on Conferencing, August 6-8, 1998, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The birth of family group conferencing in New Zealand in 1989 provided me, then a police sergeant in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, with the initial realisation that there might be a better way of responding to juvenile crime than what we were currently doing. Later I became aware of the broader restorative justice movement which began in North America in the early 1970’s and recognized that the development of the scripted version of conferencing in Wagga Wagga was just one aspect of this growing international trend.

I propose to examine the journey from Wagga Wagga in 1991 to Minnesota in 1998, not strictly for its story value, but to recognize significant steps in the journey and individuals, whose leadership, courage and insight has helped to sustain conferencing and bring it to this point. Among those individuals, I single out Ted Wachtel, whose longstanding vision of an international restorative justice movement has made possible this "Conference on Conferencing."

Initial Wagga Wagga Experience

The initial development of the Wagga Wagga model of family group conferencing occurred within a community policing context, one with a history of experimentation with a range of innovative local youth initiatives: truancy programs, crime prevention workshops and drug forums for young people. Chief Inspector Kevin Wales had established our Police Community Consultative Committee, chaired by a citizen representative, in 1990, as a part of his effort to increase the community’s involvement in solving its own problems. This created a very different policing climate in which innovation was encouraged, so that the early discussions and experimentation with the scripted model of conferencing took place in a supportive environment.

The goal was simple. To find a way to improve the police cautioning process so that those directly affected might feel better satisfied as a result. A police caution traditionally involved a police officer giving a young offender a warning rather than sending the offence to be processed by the courts. When our Police Community Consultative Committee looked at family group conferencing, our focus was largely about improving police processes. Conferencing seemed to offer an uncomplicated way to do that, and it was. We found that by bringing offenders, victims and their respective support people together in a conference, all benefited from this new approach to police cautions.

The first "conferencing" caution in Wagga Wagga involved four young offenders who had stolen a $10,000 motorcycle and had caused $1,000 damage. Although the victim, offenders and their families were very satisfied with the conference result, with the offenders and the victim chatting about their common interest in motorcycles on the way out of the police station, hindsight now suggests that starting with a lower level matter might have been more sensible.

Never having seen a New Zealand family group conference, I tried my own approach. The conference was conducted in two parts: the first involved asking the offenders, in the presence of their families, to name those who had been affected by their behaviour, while I recorded those names on a whiteboard. Then the offenders were asked to reflect on what those people may have been feeling as a result of the offence. Those responses were also recorded. In the second part of the conference, the victim, who had been waiting in another room, was invited into the conference, much to the surprise of the offenders, and was asked to critique what had been written. Whilst this "conference" worked out very well, from then on I realised that I should have all of the participants together at the outset of each conference and that there was no need to use a whiteboard to record the offenders’ comments.

The conference protocols were basic: have the offenders talk about what happened, what they were thinking and who was affected; followed by the victims and supporters; and finally, the offenders’ family and supporters. Discussion then focused on what needed to happen to make things right. Refreshments were provided immediately after the conference to provide an informal opportunity for participants to talk while the facilitator prepared the written agreement. This sequence appeared to work and within a short period, conference processes and outcomes had a certain predictability about them. Ultimately the conference protocols were converted into a script, with the key statements and questions written out for the convenience of the facilitator. Apart from one small alteration, the original conference protocols for the Wagga Wagga scripted model remain unchanged in the many jurisdictions in which they are now in use.

Clifford Shearing, a criminologist, once told me that police culture is like a storybook. If you change the stories being told in the mealroom, you have changed the culture. Within six months, operational police officers in Wagga Wagga were telling positive stories about conferencing. Police themselves were beginning to realise that it was possible to deal with juvenile crime effectively without involving courts.

The introduction of a police supervisors’ review committee to decide on which cases were to be conferenced had an unanticipated positive impact. Previously young people were too often inappropriately arrested for an offense which might be called "contempt of cop." Quality control was being exercised for the first time, with supervisors reviewing all juvenile arrests in a collegial way, establishing "benchmarks" for the seriousness of offences. This, and not necessarily the conferencing process itself, accounted for much of the considerable reduction in the number of cases placed before the court between 1991 and 1993.

The positive conference stories continued and the local media made constant reference to the new innovative way of responding to juvenile crime. Importantly, all this had been achieved without a formal change in police policy because the entire conferencing program operated within the Police Commissioner’s existing guidelines for cautioning young offenders.

Discovering Braithwaite and Nathanson

John McDonald, the New South Wales Police Commissioner’s Youth Adviser, had visited New Zealand with a youth working party in 1990 and learned about their bold experiment with conferencing. He co-authored a discussion paper on this experience (McDonald & Ireland, 1990). He attempted to promote debate and discussion on conferencing, but it was not until he visited Wagga Wagga in early 1991 that he found any operational police who were interested in what was happening in New Zealand and willing to seriously consider the idea.

After I started doing conferences in Wagga Wagga, John McDonald pointed out that criminologist John Braithwaite’s book, Crime Shame and Reintegration (1989), supported the kind of response to young offenders that we were attempting. We contacted John Braithwaite and thus began a significant relationship between the theoretician and the practitioners.

We began to articulate conferencing in terms of Braithwaite’s theory, describing it as "communitarian" and distinguishing between "stigmatizing" and "reintegrative shaming." Braithwaite and others started writing about the Wagga Wagga experience, with many questions emerging. Did the Wagga Wagga model of conferencing actually make a difference in dealing with juvenile offenders, and if so, how? To satisfactorily respond to these questions the Wagga Wagga model would have to be evaluated.

David Moore, who at the time was a lecturer in policing studies at the Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, soon became interested in conferencing. David searched for a rigorous theoretical framework to understand the emotionality consistently observed in conferences which he felt Braithwaite’s theory did not address. He found what he was looking for in Don Nathanson’s work on Silvan Tomkins’ affect theory (1992). This theory explained that allowing the free expression of the intense negative affects, or emotions, that were present at the outset of each conference would diminish in intensity. Anger, disgust, fear and shame would be replaced by contentment and interest as the conference proceeded toward resolving the harm that had been caused by the offence. Nathanson’s own concept of the "compass of shame" was helpful in explaining the varied behaviour of the offenders and their families in dealing with their embarrassment.

By 1993, our understanding of conferencing had been greatly enhanced by Braithwaite and Nathanson’s contribution. An evaluation of the first two years of the Wagga Wagga experience, undertaken by David Moore (1994) revealed some very encouraging findings: 50% reduction in young offenders before the court; 93% offender compliance with conference agreements; very high levels of victim participation and satisfaction; apparent reduction in recidivism of approximately 40%; and high levels of police satisfaction.

Beyond Wagga Wagga

In late 1993 the New South Wales Police Service agreed to pilot the Wagga Wagga model in five additional police patrols. Police from three city and two rural patrols were trained in early 1994, and although their experience was consistently positive, we began to realize that there was little or no support for conferencing within the police service. This was clearly related to the opposition from individuals in youth advocacy groups, Juvenile Justice and the Attorney General’s office who consistently raised concerns about the role of police.

Progress did occur in other ways. Conferencing legislation had been passed in South Australia and John McDonald and I provided the initial training for conference facilitators for this court based model. Marg Thorsborne, a Queensland school counsellor, ran a conference in a school after hearing about our conferencing effort and seeking advice. Her initiative led to a training of 20 teachers in June, 1994, in "community accountability conferencing," one of many variations in names for conferencing.

More significantly, Assistant Commissioner Peter Dawson from the Australian Federal Police launched a major conferencing program based in Canberra which resulted in some 100 police being trained in Canberra and laid the foundation for what is now RISE (the Reintegrative Shaming Experiment), a major evaluation of the effectiveness of conferencing for youth crime and adult drink/drive offences (Sherman, Strang & Barnes, 1997).

New South Wales Police Commissioner Lauer’s refusal to cooperate with such an evaluation at that time foreshadowed future events which would take conferencing completely out of the hands of police in New South Wales.

International Developments

In June, 1994, I began a 13-week study tour of North America, England and South Africa examining victim/offender mediation programs, on a Churchill Fellowship. This proved invaluable as it afforded contact with a range of key people who would ultimately become involved in either adopting the Wagga Wagga model of conferencing or advancing it in some way.

I first stopped in Minnesota, where Kay Pranis, the restorative justice planner for the Minnesota Corrections Department, first introduced me to the concept of restorative justice, which has now become the broader context for conferencing. Andy Revering, Police Chief of Anoka, Minnesota, attended my first presentation and subsequently adopted conferencing in his own police service, the first in the US to do so.

In Philadelphia I spent time with Don Nathanson, which provided a wonderful opportunity to gain a better understanding of affect theory. History, however, will identify the presentation given by Don Nathanson and myself to a criminal justice audience in nearby Bucks County, Pennsylvania, as a significant event because it was in this forum that Ted Wachtel first heard about conferencing. He was inspired to found the non-profit Real Justice program which has fostered the rapid growth of conferencing in a way that places a great emphasis on quality.

In Canada I met the Kitchener/Waterloo group who were responsible for running the original victim/offender mediation process. Clifford Shearing in Toronto opened up the opportunity of working with Canadian First Nation people, as well as black South Africans in the Cape Town townships at a later point in my study tour.

In England, contact with Charles Pollard, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police Service, has also proven to be significant as the Wagga Wagga model is now a key element in their policing. Contact with Mediation UK and visits to the Northhampton and Leeds victim/offender programs also provided an insight into the management of existing restorative justice programs.

Local Developments

In 1995, the New South Wales Government funded Community Justice Centres to manage youth conferences in the same five areas selected for piloting police conferencing. The justification for using community mediators and excluding police was that police were not seen as "independent" by either victims or offenders, although there was not a shred of evidence to support that view in the Wagga Wagga evaluation.

Despite an evaluation of the Community Justice Centres conducted by Patrick Power (1996) showing poor results, a working party recommended legislation that in April, 1998, resulted in the Young Offenders Act, giving responsibility for youth conferencing in New South Wales to Juvenile Justice. Under this plan, community representatives are trained and paid to facilitate conferences.

How ironic that the Wagga Wagga model no longer operates in its original form in New South Wales. The very police organization that pioneered scripted conferencing and the first police-run conferences, now being emulated around the world, has been precluded from further conferencing.

However, the experience gained in developing the Wagga Wagga model has not been lost; rather it has been greatly diversified. In 1995, I was asked by Assistant Commissioner Christine Nixon to investigate the possibility of using the conference process to deal more effectively with internal complaints in the New South Wales Police Service. The Conflict Assistance Group, now known as the Restorative Justice Group, was established and has now grown to five members who are using restorative justice processes for a range of applications: internal complaints, conflicts and disruption in workplaces; behavioural change programs; and general complaints and disciplinary processes.

In addition, the Group has been working with the New South Wales Corrective Services Department who introduced a restorative justice framework for a number of key initiatives including post court victim/offender conferences. Our work includes training prison officers to more effectively manage prisoner misconducts.

Finally, we have been working with the staff of an inner city primary school running what is effectively a "behavioural change program." We are attempting to change the school culture by encouraging teachers to model processes which encourage the development of "wholesome" behaviour in children, rather than focus almost exclusively on inappropriate behaviours.

Sharing the Wagga Wagga Model

I have encountered a number of other individuals and organizations that have made use of the Wagga Wagga model or made contributions toward the understanding and implementation of conferencing. Academicians Tom Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger (1997) have written about useful strategies for dealing with issues of moral indignation in conferences. Glen Purdy and RCMP sergeant Jake Bouwman initiated the first conferencing program in Canada in Sparwood, British Columbia. Assistant Commissioner Cleve Cooper of the RCMP, and David Arnot of the Canada Department of Justice, have done much to advance conferencing in Canada especially in aboriginal communities. Police sergeant Tom Fraga pioneered conferencing in his home state of Vermont. Criminologist Paul McCold and Captain John Stahr evaluated the implementation of conferencing by Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, police, completing the first true experimental evaluation of conferencing anywhere. Heather Strang and Lawrence Sherman will shortly complete the more extensive RISE experiment in Canberra. Detective Paul Schnell came to our first training in Pennsylvania and went on to take a leadership role in training hundreds of conference facilitators here in Minnesota.

Beyond those I have met personally, there are many others who have fostered the growth of the Wagga Wagga model of conferencing in their own jurisdictions, each taking on the usually lonely job of advocating for a new response to wrongdoing.

Making it Happen

Developing a good practical model of conferencing in Wagga Wagga was nothing more than a beginning point. Implementing this innovative restorative justice process in more than a token way has proved to be the more difficult task. Key elements that maximize the chance for success in implementing conferencing in any setting are:

1. Visionary Leadership

In our pragmatic world, it is difficult to find people in key positions who possess the characteristics of true leaders. These characteristics include moral courage, a vision of what needs to happen, and the willingness to follow that vision no matter what the risk. For example, Michael Brown, the president judge of the juvenile court in Auckland, New Zealand, was such a champion. He advocated for the adoption of family group conferencing into law, an innovative response to the indigenous Maori population’s concern that too many of their young people were ending up in the criminal justice and social welfare system.

2. A Principled Framework

So that one is not simply implementing an isolated program or a new gimmick, change must occur within a framework of principles that guide discussion, development and practice. Restorative justice values, such as the restorative justice checklist articulated by Kay Pranis for the Department of Corrections here in Minnesota, offer just such a principled framework.

3. Sound Theory

The development of the Wagga Wagga model began with practices that were effective. Identifying Braithwaite and Nathanson’s work enabled us to make sense of what was happening. A sound theoretical understanding has allowed the adaptation of the model to all situations where relationships between people have been adversely affected. Theory provides us with the certainty that conferencing can deal with most incidents where harm has resulted, in a systematic and predictable way that meets the innate needs of people regardless of individual or cultural differences.

4. Whole System Approach

Our individual experiences in promoting restorative justice processes have always been met with tremendous interest and enthusiasm, yet getting others to become involved has proven to be problematic. Even with high quality training in conferencing, very few organizations progress to the point of achieving any significant change in practices because they fail to adopt a whole system approach.

The greatest barrier is the existing organizational culture, which resists fundamental change. Restorative justice needs to become the operating philosophy and not merely an addendum to the existing philosophy. Ideally this philosophy needs to become how the agency or jurisdiction handles all matters, not just isolated incidents.

This was most evident when our Restorative Justice Group was recently working with the teaching staff of a Sydney, Australia, inner-city primary school with students representing 40 different ethnic groups. Drawing on Guy Masters’ (1998) experience in Japanese schools, we agreed to offer some restorative justice conferencing training conditional on the involvement of all staff. Masters has found that behavioral problems in Japanese schools were viewed as normal and that these problems offered short and finite learning opportunities.

So rather than merely provide a generic training in restorative justice disciplinary practices, we had the teachers examine their present classroom management techniques and then contrast them with restorative justice processes that emphasize the importance of relationships, like conferencing. The teachers began to see that their punitive practices focused on compliance as an end in itself, rather than being part of an effort to promote wholesome behaviours as part of a safe and healthy school environment. What was missing in the school was a means of modeling and promoting positive behaviour, instead of focusing almost exclusively on aberrant behaviour.

Teachers initially had viewed the training as a way of assisting them in dealing with difficult behavioural issues. While teachers might have acquired some useful conferencing techniques, this would have had only a limited impact. Rather, they have become involved in their own behavioural change program in which they have identified what behaviours they need to model with one another and ultimately their students. The teachers have also adopted a set of key questions they use on each occasion that they have to confront a student’s behavior. The questions, like those in a family group conference, provoke awareness in students about the impact of behavior on other people’s feelings and on their relationships with others. An initial result seems to be a considerable reduction in misbehaviour on the playground.

So what appears to initially have been a simple proposition of training teachers on restorative conferencing is an example of why it is so difficult to have this concept accepted and incorporated in a sustainable way, without some fundamental change to the working culture of a school, agency, police service, correctional, community or other setting. Otherwise, how can we expect people to embrace and use restorative justice processes when they themselves have not experienced them?

5. Supportive Learning Environment

A true sense of restorative justice can only be gradually developed through experimentation, making mistakes, paying attention to feedback and trying again. Formal training is only the starting point in what needs to become a journey of experiential learning, which is essential to reaching an understanding of and ongoing commitment to conferencing and similar processes. This is why restorative justice practices and facilitation should not become the exclusive domain of "experts," because that kind of prescriptive learning would be the antithesis of what is needed. Administrators who want to encourage conferencing must provide a supportive learning environment that allows people to take risks and learn from their mistakes, without fear of reprisal or embarrassment.

Our Restorative Justice Group has found that a behavioural change program, following a Royal Commission into systemic corruption in the New South Wales Police Service, achieves the best results in reforming the police culture arise where inquisitive constables are encouraged by their leadership to realise their potential in a supportive environment. Our own role in this environment is to ask key questions, not to dole out the expert knowledge we might possess. We challenge police practitioners to ask themselves: What do you do? Why do you did it? What outcomes do you hope to achieve? How do you know you are making a difference? How do you measure this?

We argue that police reform is essentially behavioural change. Unless police change the way they relate to one another and their communities, then there is little likelihood of sustaining change in the police culture that condones corruption. Also, we only work with volunteers rather than try to impose change on reluctant police officers. Ultimately those resisters are far more likely to be influenced by their peers than by some edict to change.

6. Evaluation and Refinement

We must measure our effectiveness against a principled framework that defines the outcomes we are seeking. Evaluation allows you to determine how effective conferences have been and provides the empirical evidence needed to argue the case for conferencing. Evaluation also provides information needed to continually refine practices, such as in the Bethlehem police experiment where evaluation and feedback led to improvement in the facilitation of conferences by police officers.

I would like to point out two outstanding examples that reflect the six elements described above: visionary leadership, a principled framework, sound theory, whole system approach, supportive learning environment, evaluation and refinement.

Thames Valley Police Service

Thames Valley Police Service in the United Kingdom is an outstanding example of how conferencing should be introduced in a single jurisdiction. Chief Constable Charles Pollard, an outspoken critic of the existing criminal justice system, leads an innovative and progressive police service. In 1994 Pollard recognized that the Wagga Wagga model would greatly enhance his Service’s problem solving policing approach, and he committed to introduce conferencing within a restorative justice policing philosophy.

Thames Valley established a Restorative Justice Consultancy, with the responsibility for training police and assisting with the implementation of a variety of restorative justice processes: restorative cautions, restorative conferences, restorative interventions for internal complaints and workplace conflicts. The process will also include ongoing evaluation. Conferencing is being integrated into all aspects of policing, because where police experience restorative justice in how they are treated, they are more likely to reflect these practices in dealing with community problems.

Real Justice: A Whole New Dimension

Without a doubt, the not-for-profit Real Justice program created by Ted Wachtel, has made one of the most significant contributions to lifting the profile of restorative justice in North America and beyond. Ted is an individual who has a real belief and passion in whatever he does. The founding of Real Justice is one of those marvelous stories where an individual acts on his instincts and moves forward with a commitment that goes beyond anything one might normally expect, creating a whole new dimension of advocacy and implementation support for conferencing.

After visiting one of the five schools operated by Ted’s agency, the Community Service Foundation, which provides education, counseling and residential services for troubled youth in southeastern Pennsylvania, I understood why he reacted with such enthusiasm to conferencing. He and his wife, Susan, who co-founded the agency in 1977, have created a restorative environment which amounts to an all-day conference held everyday. Kids who attend these schools are able to "get real" with themselves, probably for the first time in their lives. Significantly, the organization uses conferencing and restorative practices to deal with its own staff issues as well.

Real Justice has not only developed an excellent training for conference facilitators, but has reduced the cost by training experienced conference facilitators to become trainers in their own locale. Real Justice has also initiated evaluation, most notably the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania police conferencing research study.

Real Justice has not been without its detractors, although I suspect that some are intimidated by the impact Real Justice is having in North America and others have mistakenly assumed that it is a lucrative enterprise. The strength of Real Justice has been its independence, fostering conferencing wherever opportunities arise, regardless of jurisdiction or country, spreading the awareness and use of conferencing at a most encouraging rate. If restorative justice is to seriously challenge existing retributive justice systems, the continuing contribution made by Real Justice will be essential for this to happen.


I trust that our continuing commitment to restorative justice philosophy and practice will be very much strengthened as a result of participating in this Conference on Conferencing. We all need to leave here with a sense of hope, interest and excitement about the possibilities and potential for restorative justice conferencing. This very basic human and innate need to feel hope is indicative of what we are attempting to provide for others.

Our greatest challenge will be the one of making it happen and ensuring that restorative justice is seen not just as a discreet alternative program or intervention—but an everyday reality for preventing and managing difficulties within our communities.

Thank you.


Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, Shame and Reintegration. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Masters, M. (1998). "Reintegrative shaming in theory and practice: thinking about feeling in criminology." Ph.D. thesis, Lancaster University, UK.

McDonald, J. & Ireland, S. (1990). "Can it be done another way?" An unpublished discussion paper.

Moore, D.B. (1994). A New Approach to Juvenile Justice: An Evaluation of Family Conferencing in Wagga Wagga. A report to the Australian Criminology Research Council. Wagga Wagga, Australia: Centre for Rural Social Research, Charles Sturt University-Riverina.

Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton & Company.

Power, P. (1996). An Evaluation of Community Youth Conferencing in New South Wales. A report to the New South Wales Attorney General.

Scheff, T. & Retzinger, S. (1997). "Strategy for Community Conferences: Emotions and Social Bonds." In B. Galaway and J. Hudson (eds.). Restorative Justice: International Perspectives (pp. 315-336). Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

Sherman, L., Strang, H. & Barnes, G. (1997). "Reintegrative shaming experiment for restorative community policing." Canberra: Australia National University.

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