Victim-Offender Mediation

Background and Concept

Although still unfamiliar to many mainstream juvenile and criminal justice audiences and marginal to the court process in some jurisdictions where they do operate, victim-offender mediation programs—referred to in some communities as “victim offender reconciliation programs” and, increasingly, as “victim offender dialog programs”—have a respectable 20-year track record in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Currently, there are approximately 320 victim-offender mediation programs in the United States and Canada and more than 700 in Europe. Several programs in North America currently receive nearly 1,000 case referrals annually from local courts. Although the greatest proportion of cases involve less serious property crimes committed by young people, the process is used increasingly in response to serious and violent crimes committed by both juveniles and adults (Umbreit, 1997).

An Example of a Victim-Offender Mediation Session

The victim was a middle-aged woman. The offender, a 14-year-old neighbor of the victim, had broken into the victim’s home and stolen a VCR. The mediation session took place in the basement of the victim’s church.

In the presence of a mediator, the victim and offender talked for 2 hours. At times, their conversation was heated and emotional. When they finished, the mediator felt that they had heard each other’s stories and learned something important about the impact of the crime and about each other.

The participants agreed that the offender would pay $200 in restitution to cover the cost of damages to the victim’s home resulting from the break-in and would also reimburse the victim for the cost of the stolen VCR (estimated at $150). They also worked out a payment schedule.

During the session, the offender made several apologies to the victim and agreed to complete community service hours working in a food bank sponsored by the victim’s church. The victim said that she felt less angry and fearful after learning more about the offender and the details of the crime. She also thanked the mediator for allowing the session to be held at her church.

The victim-offender mediation process offers victims an opportunity to meet offenders in a safe, structured setting and engage in a mediated discussion of the crime.2 With the assistance of a trained mediator, the victim is able to tell the offender about the crime’s physical, emotional, and financial impact; receive answers to lingering questions about the crime and the offender; and be directly involved in developing a restitution plan for the offender to pay back any financial debt to the victim. The process is different from mediation as practiced in civil or commercial disputes, because the involved parties are in agreement about their respective roles in the crime. Also, the process should not be primarily focused on reaching a settlement, although most sessions do, in fact, result in a signed restitution agreement.3 Because of these fundamental differences, the terms “victim-offender meeting,” “conferencing,” and “dialog” are becoming increasingly popular to describe variations from standard mediation practices (Umbreit, 1997).

Procedures and Goals

Cases may be referred to victim-offender mediation programs by judges, probation officers, victim advocates, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement. In some programs, cases are primarily referred as a diversion from prosecution (assuming that any agreement reached during the mediation session is successfully completed). In other programs, cases are usually referred after a formal admission of guilt has been accepted by the court, with mediation being a condition of probation or other disposition (if the victim has volunteered to participate). Some programs receive case referrals at both stages.

During mediation sessions, victims explain how the crime affected them and are given the opportunity to ask questions about the incident and help develop a plan for restoring losses. Offenders are given the opportunity to tell their stories and take direct responsibility through making amends in some form (Umbreit, 1994).

The goals of victim-offender mediation include the following:

  • Supporting the healing process of victims by providing a safe, controlled setting for them to meet and speak with offenders on a strictly voluntary basis.

  • Allowing offenders to learn about the impact of their crimes on the victims and take direct responsibility for their behavior.

  • Providing an opportunity for the victim and offender to develop a mutually acceptable plan that addresses the harm caused by the crime.

Considerations in Implementation

Boy sitting on benchIn implementing any victim-offender mediation program, it is critically important to maintain sensitivity to the needs of the victim. First and foremost, the mediator must do everything possible to ensure that the victim will not be harmed in any way. Additionally, the victim’s participation must be completely voluntary. The offender’s participation should also be voluntary. Offenders are typically given the option of participating in mediation or dialog as one of several dispositional choices. Although offenders almost never have absolute choice (e.g., the option of no juvenile justice intervention), they should never be coerced into meetings with victims. The victim should also be given choices, whenever possible, about procedures, such as when and where the mediation session will take place, who will be present, and who will speak first. Cases should be carefully screened regarding the readiness of both victim and offender to participate. The mediator should conduct in-person premediation sessions with both parties to clarify the issues to be resolved. The mediator should also make followup contacts and monitor any agreement reached.

Lessons Learned

A large multisite study of victim-offender mediation programs with juvenile offenders (Umbreit, 1994) found the following:

  • In cases referred to the four study-site programs during a 2-year period, 95 percent of mediation sessions resulted in a successfully negotiated restitution agreement to restore the victim’s financial losses.

  • Victims who met with offenders in the presence of a trained mediator were more likely to be satisfied with the justice system than were similar victims who went through the standard court process (79 percent versus 57 percent).

  • After meeting offenders, victims were significantly less fearful of being revictimized.

  • Offenders who met with victims were far more likely to successfully complete their restitution obligation than were similar offenders who did not participate in mediation (81 percent versus 58 percent).

  • Recidivism rates were lower among offenders who participated in mediation than among offenders who did not participate (18 percent versus 27 percent); furthermore, participating offenders’ subsequent crimes tended to be less serious.4

Multisite studies (Coates and Gehm, 1989; Umbreit, 1994) also found that although restitution was an important motivator for victim participation in mediation sessions, victims consistently viewed actual receipt of restitution as secondary to the opportunity to talk about the impact of the crime, meet the offender, and learn the offender’s circumstances. The studies also found that offenders appreciated the opportunity to talk to the victim and felt better after doing so.

A recent statewide survey of victim service providers in Minnesota found that 91 percent believed that victim-offender mediation should be available in every judicial district because it represents an important victim service. The American Bar Association recently endorsed victim-offender mediation and recommends its use throughout the United States. As of 1997, victim-offender mediation programs have been identified in nearly every State (Umbreit and Schug, 1997).

For More Information

For more information on victim-offender mediation, contact:

  • Dr. Mark Umbreit, Director, Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, University of Minnesota, School of Social Work, 105 Peters Hall, 1404 Gortner Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108–6160, 612–624–4923 (phone), 612–625– 3744 (fax), rjp@tlcmail.che.umn.edu (e-mail), ssw.che.umn.edu/rjp (Internet).

  • Victim Offender Mediation Association (VOMA), c/o William T. Preston, Administrator, 143 Canal Street, New Smyrna Beach, FL 32168, 904–424–1591 (phone), 904–423–8099 (fax), voma@voma.org (e-mail), www.voma.org (Internet).

2 In some programs, parents of the offender are also often part of the mediation session.

3 Not all mediation sessions lead to financial restitution.

4 In the absence of pure control groups, selection bias cannot be ruled out for the comparisons drawn in this study.

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A Comparison of Four Restorative Conferencing Models Juvenile Justice Bulletin February 2001