In a Restorative Justice Forum, the agreement about what should happen to repair the harm is reached by consensus. This experience, of sitting down and working collaboratively with those who have been affected by crime and conflict, and finding a way to restore broken relationships, can be life changing. This is one of the strengths of the process.
At the same time, it can be a challenge to ensure that agreements are fair and realistic. Offenders who are feeling remorse may agree to do more than is possible. Less frequently, victims can ask for more than is fair. If an agreement isn’t completed, the victim may feel disappointed and disillusioned.
The offender may feel like he or she has failed again. Referring agencies can lose confidence in the process. Fortunately, facilitators who are experienced will usually, but not always, recognize these situations and help participants achieve fair and realistic agreements.
In 2006, two Fraser Valley youths willfully damaged a number of rural mail boxes. They were eventually caught and agreed to participate in a restorative justice forum.
Two of the mailbox owners agreed to represent the 21 families whose boxes had been damaged. The estimated cost of replacing all the boxes was $720. The victims had agreed amongst themselves that the youths should pay the full amount of the replacement and were unwilling to consider any alternative reparation.
At the forum, the youths were remorseful and wanted to take responsibility for their actions. They were optimistic that they could get jobs and earn the money. In the end the youths were not able to find jobs and pay back the money. The facilitators had to return the file to the RCMP and report that the agreement had not been completed.
How could this failure have been avoided?
Before a forum takes place, the facilitators have a least one interview with each of the people who will be in the circle. One purpose of these interviews is to make sure that the incident is suitable for restorative justice.
It is also the time for the facilitators to explain to all participant how RJ works and what to expect at the forum. In addition, various options are usually discussed that could be part of the agreement. Examples might be apologies, restitution and community service.
If the insistence on full monetary restitution had been expressed at this point, the facilitators could have then discussed this with the offenders to see whether it was realistic.
If there was doubt about the ability of the offenders to raise this amount of money, they could have then gone back and explored more options with those who suffered the damage.
In the end, when there is careful consideration about what the victims need, the chances for a successful outcome are greater.