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Focus Group Findings

Several victims described a "domino effect" of the juvenile's action upon their families and friends.

Some of the judges equated victim involvement with the disruptive presence of victims in court proceedings.

—Focus Group comments

The findings of the project were interesting. The opinions and insights of the victims in all four focus groups were nearly unanimous. Conversely, the perspectives of the judges in all four states varied as much as the victims' responses were similar.

Victims' Observations

Virtually all victim participants found the juvenile court and justice system experience predominately negative. Victim participants were also nearly unanimous in their dissatisfaction with the court process.

Victims felt there was often a lack of respect for their dignity as human beings.

Most victims felt they had received little acknowledgment as victims.

All victim participants felt that crime victims should be considered and treated as "clients" of the juvenile court.

Many victims reported that juvenile court professionals lacked understanding about the victimization experience and demonstrated a generally insensitive attitude.

Most victims reported they lacked general understanding of the court process and had received little information about their own cases.

Most victims were less interested in punishment for its own sake than in seeing that juvenile justice professionals followed through with their commitment to hold offenders accountable, especially for restitution.

A number of victims expressed strong interest in offender rehabilitation; several became personally involved in offender treatment programs.

Victims agreed unanimously that information about their cases was very important to them but typically inadequate. Equally critical to victims was an opportunity to be heard and to have input into the offender's disposition.

Victims were very open to the use of restorative justice practices as long as participation remained voluntary. A few victims had participated in mediation and other processes. The victims generally believed that more restorative alternatives to traditional court processes are needed.

Judges' Observations

In restorative justice, the crime victim, the community, and the offender are all viewed as critical stakeholders in the response to crime. As presented here and discussed in restorative justice literature (Dooley, M., 1995; Bazemore, G., and C. Washington, 1995), the crime victim is referred to as the "client," which is defined in two parts.

In restorative justice, when an agency views an individual crime victim as a legitimate recipient of the agency's services, the agency refers to that individual as a "client." Prior to the introduction of restorative justice ideas and principles, the concept of victim as client was not a part of the traditional ideology and mission of juvenile courts. In earlier times, crime victims and judges considered several questions to determine the status of the victim, such as "Is the victim indeed a client?" and "If so, what does this mean in terms of expectations for the court?"

The second part of the definition of client comes from the literature of total quality management and reinventing government (Osborne, D., and T. Gaebler, 1992), which defines a client as an active customer expected to be involved in the decisionmaking processes of an agency (Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission, 1997). In this sense, judges and victims were asked a number of questions about the role of victims as participants in various parts of the court process.

In the focus group findings of this project, the general consensus among the participating judges was that a victim is indeed a client of the juvenile justice system and has some role in juvenile court. All the judges were more comfortable with the notion of the victim as a client of the whole system rather than of only the court in the narrow sense of the term. The distinction between the system and the court is a very important one because the court, varying by jurisdiction, may include numerous agencies and staff, including the judge, clerical support staff, probation and parole staff, victim services staff, and a range of special programs and staff.

The variations in the judges' views of victims as "clients" focused on several themes, including the following:

The status of the victims relative to the offenders, families, and others.

The differences between property and violent crime victims.

The point in the process at which a victim becomes a client.

The apparent motivation of victims to participate.

Limits on what kind of information should be available to victims.

Judges' perceptions regarding the value of alternative, informal dispositional options designed to actively include victims in decisionmaking.

Judges' perceptions regarding the challenges to judicial impartiality presented by victim involvement in the court process.

Judges' expressed feelings of helplessness in responding to victims' needs, due largely to lack of coordination among the court, the prosecutor's office, and probation services.

Judges' near unanimous report of low rates of victim participation in the court process. Judges were divided on whether the lack of victim involvement in the process is due to the victims' lack of motivation or the unfriendliness of the court.

A few judges felt that victims are often emotionally incapable of rationally participating in the court process. Many judges felt that victims are often inadequately prepared for their juvenile court experience. Some judges viewed court process and management, rather than victim attitude and behavior, as the primary cause of victim dissatisfaction.

Judges were nearly unanimous in their agreement about the importance of victim access to reliable information about their cases. Judges generally wanted to increase the openness of the court process. However, in one state, judges were strongly opposed to victims receiving information about the offender's background.

Judges generally agreed that improvements are needed in processes involving victim notification, victim participation, victim impact statements, and restitution to victims.

While nearly unanimous in their support for improving restitution and restorative community service, judges indicated more mixed support for restorative processes, such as victim-offender mediation, circle sentencing, and other forms of restorative conferencing that seek to give victims and other citizens an empowered role in dispositional and diversion decisions.

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Victims, Judges, and Juvenile Court Reform
Through Restorative Justice
October 2000
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