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I. Victim-Offender Mediation: A National Perspective

An increasing number of crime victims are choosing to meet face-to-face with the persons who victimized them. They are able to let the offenders know how the crime affected their lives, to receive answers to many lingering questions, and to be directly involved in holding offenders accountable for the harm they caused. Victim-offender mediation is recognized as a viable alternative to more traditional retributive response for serving victims' needs by probation, prosecuting attorneys, courts, correctional facilities, and communities. As the field of victim-offender mediation has grown extensively over the past 25 years, it has become increasingly important to conduct the process in a highly victim-sensitive manner while considering the needs of offenders.

Before addressing the underlying principles and guidelines of victim-offender mediation, a description of the mediation process follows.

What Is It?

Victim-offender mediation (VOM) is a process that provides interested victims (primarily those of property crimes and minor assaults) the opportunity to meet their offenders in a safe and structured setting. The goal is to hold offenders directly accountable while providing important support and assistance to victims. With the assistance of trained mediators, the victims are able to let the offenders know how the crime affected them, receive answers to their questions, and be directly involved in developing a restitution plan that holds the offenders financially accountable for the losses they caused. The offenders are directly responsible for their behavior and therefore must learn the full impact of what they did and develop a plan for making amends, to the degree possible, to the persons they violated. Offenders' failure to complete the restitution agreement results in further court-imposed consequences. Some VOM programs are called "victim-offender meetings," "victimoffender reconciliation," or "victimoffender conferences."

Victim-offender mediation is one of the clearest expressions of restorative justice, a movement that is receiving a great deal of attention throughout North America and Europe. Current juvenile and criminal justice systems are primarily offender-driven, with a retributive "trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em" perspective that views crime as an offense against the State and offers little help to crime victims.

Restorative justice, however, provides a very different framework for understanding and responding to crime and victimization. Moving beyond the offender-driven focus, restorative justice identifies three clients: individual victims, victimized communities, and offenders. Crime is understood primarily as an offense against people within communities, as opposed to the more abstract legal definition of crime as a violation against the State. Those most directly affected by crime are allowed to play an active role in restoring peace between individuals and within communities. Restoration of the emotional and material losses resulting from crime is far more important than imposing ever-increasing levels of costly punishment on the offender. The debt owed by offenders is concrete. Rather than passively "taking their punishment," offenders are encouraged to activelyrestore losses, to the degree possible, to victims and communities. The use of dialogue and negotiation among victims, victimized communities, and offenders is emphasized. In truth, the essence of what is being called restorative justice is deeply rooted in the traditional practices of many indigenous people throughout the world, such as American Indians, Pacific Islanders, the Maori in New Zealand, and First Nation people in Canada.

When Are Cases Referred?

In some programs, cases are primarily referred to victim-offender mediation as a diversion from prosecution, assuming the mediation agreement is successfully completed. In other programs, cases are referred primarily after a formal admission of guilt has been accepted by the court, with the mediation being a condition of probation (if the victim is interested). Some programs receive case referrals at both the diversion and post-adjudication levels. Most cases are referred by officials involved in the juvenile justice system, although some programs also receive referrals from the adult criminal justice system. Judges, probation officers, victim advocates, prosecutors, defense attorneys, or police can make referrals to VOM programs.

The national survey of VOM programs that was conducted as part of this project found that, of the 116 programs that were interviewed (out of a total of 289 identified), 34 percent indicated that their primary referral was at a diversion level; 28 percent, at a post-adjudication but predisposition level; and 28 percent, at a post-disposition level of referral (appendix A).

How Is It Different From Other Kinds of Mediation?

Mediation is being used in an increasing number of conflict situations, such as divorce and child custody cases, community disputes, commercial disputes, and other civil court-related conflicts. In such settings, the parties are called "disputants," and the assumption made is that both are contributing to the conflict and therefore both need to compromise to reach a settlement. Often, mediation in these cases focuses heavily upon reaching a settlement, with less emphasis upon discussing the full impact of the conflict on the disputants' lives.

In victim-offender mediation, the involved parties are not "disputants." Generally, one party has clearly committed a criminal offense and has admitted doing so, whereas the other has clearly been victimized. Therefore, the issue of guilt or innocence is not mediated. Nor is there an expectation that crime victims compromise or request less than what they need to restore their losses. Although many other types of mediation are largely "settlement-driven," victim-offender mediation is primarily "dialogue-driven," with emphasis upon victim empowerment, offender accountability, and restoration of losses. Most VOM sessions (more than 95 percent) result in a signed restitution agreement. This agreement, however, is secondary to the importance of the initial dialogue between the parties. This dialogue addresses emotional and informational needs of victims that are central to both the empowerment of the victims and the development of victim empathy in the offenders, which can help to prevent criminal behavior in the future. Research has consistently found that the restitution agreement is less important to crime victims than the opportunity to express their feelings about the offense directly to the offenders (Schneider, 1986). Restorative impact is strongly related to the creation of a safe place for dialogue between the crime victim and the offender.

Table 1 identifies key characteristics of victim-offender mediation that are likely to result in the least and the most restorative impact.

Table 1: Victim-Offender Mediation Continuum: From Least to Most Restorative Impact

Agreement-Driven: Offender Focus

  • Entire focus is upon determining the amount of financial restitution to be paid, with no opportunity to talk directly about the full impact of the crime upon the victims, the community, and the offenders.

  • No separate preparation meetings are conducted with the victims and offenders prior to bringing them together.

  • Victims are not given a choice of where they would feel the most comfortable and safe to meet or of whom they would like to have present.

  • Victims are given only written notice to appear for a mediation session at a preset time, with no preparation.

  • The mediators or facilitators describe the offense and then the offenders speak, with the victims simply asking a few questions or responding to questions from the mediator.

  • A highly directive style of facilitation is conducted with mediators talking most of the time, continually asking both victims and offenders questions, with little if any direct dialogue between the involved parties.

  • The session is marked by low tolerance of moments of silence or expressions of feelings.

  • The mediation session is voluntary for victims but required of offenders whether or not they take responsibility.

  • The mediation is settlement-driven and very brief (10-15 minutes).

Dialogue-Driven: Victim Sensitive

  • Primary points of focus are to provide an opportunity for victims and offenders to talk directly to each other; to allow victims to express the full impact of the crime upon their lives and receive answers to important questions they have; and to allow offenders to understand the real human impact of their behavior and take direct responsibility for seeking to make things right.

  • Restitution is important but secondary to the dialogue about the impact of the crime.

  • Victims are continually given choices throughout the process: where to meet, who should be present, etc.

  • Separate preparation meetings are conducted with victims and offenders prior to bringing them together, with emphasis upon listening to how the crime has affected them, identifying their needs, and preparing them for the mediation or conference session.

  • A nondirective style of facilitation is fostered with the parties talking most of the time. The mediation incorporates a high tolerance of silence and the use of a humanistic or transforming mediation model (see appendix B).

  • The mediation is marked by high tolerance for expressions of feelings and of the full impact of crime.

  • Mediation is voluntary for both victims and offenders.

  • Trained community volunteers serve as mediators or comediators along with agency staff.

  • The mediation session is dialogue-driven and typically about an hour (or longer) in length.

Are Crime Victims Interested?

Interest in victim-offender mediation spread in the late 1970s, and local funding began supporting the development of new programs across the country. A recent statewide public opinion poll in Minnesota found that 82 percent of a random sample of citizens throughout the State would consider participating in a VOM program if they were victims of property crimes. Interviews with 280 victims who participated in VOM programs in 4 States found that 91 percent felt their participation was totally voluntary. For those victims in the comparison group for this study—namely, those who did not participate in mediation—70 percent would have preferred to meet the offender had they been given the choice. Victim-offender mediation is not appropriate for all crimes. In all cases, it must be presented as a choice to the victim.

How Many Programs Exist?

A national survey of the field found 289 VOM programs throughout the United States as of 1998. Today, a more accurate estimation would be in excess of 300. Telephone interviews with 116 of the programs revealed that 42 percent of the programs were run by community-based agencies, 23 percent were church-based programs, 17 percent were sponsored by probation and correctional departments, 3 percent were based in victim services agencies, 4 percent were operated by prosecuting attorney's offices, and 11 percent were managed by other types of agencies. Programs most frequently identified their primary source of funding as local, State, or Federal Government. Foundations were the fourth most frequent source of funding. Of those programs answering the question, 46 programs (45 percent) work only with juvenile offenders and their victims, 9 programs (9 percent) work only with adult offenders and their victims, and 48 programs (46 percent) work with both. The vast majority of cases handled by the programs are property offenses and minor assaults. A number of the more experienced programs, however, periodically work with more violent cases.

After 20 years of development and many thousands of cases (primarily property crimes and minor assaults) in more than 1,000 communities throughout North America (more than 300) and Europe (more than 700), victim-offender mediation is finally beginning to move toward the center of criminal and juvenile justice systems (table 2). Some programs are still small, with a very limited number of case referrals. Many other programs are receiving several hundred referrals per year. A few programs have recently been asked to divert 1,000 or more cases each year from the court system, and county governments have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund these VOM programs.

It is clear that the field of VOM has grown extensively since the first Victim-Offender Reconciliation Project was initiated in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, in 1974, and replicated in the United States in Elkart, Indiana, in 1978. Perhaps the clearest expression of how the field has continued to develop is the recognition it received in 1994 when the American Bar Association (ABA) endorsed the practice of victim-offender mediation. After many years of supporting civil court mediation, with limited interest in criminal mediation, the ABA now endorses the process and recommends the use of "victim-offender mediation and dialogue" in courts throughout the United States. Similarly, 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 since it represents an important service option for crime victims.

Table 2: International Development of Victim-Offender Mediation Programs
New Zealand
Available in all jurisdictions
South Africa
United States

What Have We Learned From Research?

While a continuing need for more research in this field remains, far more empirical data exist on this option than one might find on many other correctional justice interventions. During the past several years, a small but growing body of empirical data has emerged from multisite assessments in Canada, England, and the United States. Studies conducted over the past 12 years throughout Europe and North America report high levels of satisfaction with the mediation process and outcome on the part of victims and offenders (Coates and Gehm, 1989; Collins, 1984; Dignan, 1990; Fischer and Jeune, 1987; Galaway, 1988; Galaway and Hudson, 1996; Gehm, 1990; Marshall and Merry, 1990; Perry, Lajeunesse, and Woods, 1987; Umbreit, 1989, 1991, 1993a, 1993b, 1994a, 1994b, 1995a, 1995b; Umbreit and Coates, 1993; and Wright and Galaway, 1989). Some studies found higher restitution completion rates (Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b), reduced fear among victims (Umbreit and Coates, 1993; and Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b), and reduced further criminal behavior (Nugent and Paddock, 1995; Schneider, 1986; and Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b). Multisite studies in England (Marshall and Merry, 1990; and Umbreit and Roberts, 1996), the United States (Coates and Gehm, 1989; and Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b), and Canada (Umbreit, 1995a and 1995b) have confirmed most of these findings. A large multisite study in the United States (Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b) found that victims of crime who meet with their offenders are far more likely to be satisfied with the criminal justice system response to their cases than victims of similar offenses who go through the conventional criminal court process.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the victim-offender mediation process can serve to humanize the criminal justice experience for both the victim and the offender. It holds offenders directly accountable to the people they have victimized, allows for more active involvement of crime victims and community members (as volunteer mediators and support persons) in the justice process, and reduces further criminal behavior of offenders. During the early 1980s, many questioned whether crime victims would want to meet face-to-face with their offender. Today it is clear, from empirical data and experience, that the majority of crime victims who are presented with the opportunity for mediation and dialogue choose to engage in the process, with victim participation rates in many programs ranging from 60 to 70 percent.

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Guidelines for Victim-Sensitive Victim-Offender Mediation:
Restorative Justice Through Dialogue
April 2000
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