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A Description of Victim-Offender Mediation

What Is It?

Victim-offender mediation 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 for their behavior while providing important support and assistance to victims. With the assistance of trained mediators, victims are able to express the full impact the crimes have had on their lives and to be directly involved in developing restitution plans that holds offenders financially accountable for the losses they have caused. Offenders are able to take responsibility for their behavior, learn the full impact of their actions, and develop plans for making amends to the persons they violated. Some VOM programs are called "victim-offender meetings" or "victim-offender conferences."

The first VOM program in the United States was developed in Elkart, Indiana, in 1978 and modeled after a similar program in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, that began in 1974. These initial programs were called Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs (VORPs). Today, some VOM programs are identified as VORPs, although as the field has become increasingly victim-sensitive most programs have dropped any reference to "reconciliation." The intent is to provide a safe place for dialogue, negotiation, and problem solving to foster a sense of victim empowerment and to clarify future expectations rather than place blame for past behavior. Major emphasis is placed on having the mediator conduct in-person, separate premediation sessions with the victim and offender prior to bringing them together. Thorough preparation of the parties is central to creating a safe place for dialogue.

When Are Cases Referred?

In some programs, cases are referred to VOM as a diversion from prosecution, assuming the mediation agreement is successfully completed. In other programs, cases are referred 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 from the juvenile justice system, although some programs also receive referrals from the adult criminal justice system. Judges, probation officers, victim advocates, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police officers can make referrals to VOM programs. In all cases, however, victim participation should be entirely voluntary.

How Is VOM 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 is that both are contributing to the conflict and, therefore, 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 manage their losses.

Although many other types of mediation are largely "settlement driven," VOM is primarily "dialogue driven," with emphasis upon the victim's needs, offender accountability, and some 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. The dialogue addresses emotional and informational needs of 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.

Are Crime Victims Interested?

Interest in victim-offender mediation has grown since the late 1970s, but VOM is not appropriate for all crimes. In all cases, it must be presented as a voluntary choice to the victim. Over the past 20 years and in thousands of cases throughout North America, experience has shown that the majority of victims presented with the option of mediation chose to participate in the process. A recent statewide public opinion poll in Minnesota found that 82 percent of a random sample of citizens from throughout the State would consider participating in a victim-offender mediation program if they were victims of property crime. Interviews with 280 victims who participated in victim-offender mediation programs in 4 States found that 91 percent of victims felt their participation was totally voluntary.

How Many Programs Exist?

There are more than 300 VOM programs throughout the United States and more than 700 in Europe. The American Bar Association recently endorsed the practice of VOM and recommends its development in all courts throughout the country. A recent statewide survey of victim service providers in Minnesota found that 91 percent believed that VOM should be available in every judicial district since it represents an important opportunity for crime victims to resolve the impact of crime on their lives.

What Have We Learned From Research?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the victim-offender mediation process can serve to humanize the criminal justice experience for both victim and offender. Research shows that:

  • Victims of crime who meet with their offenders are far more likely to be satisfied with the justice system response to their cases than victims of similar crimes who go through the traditional court process (Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b).

  • After meeting with offenders, victims are significantly less fearful of being revictimized (Umbreit and Coates, 1993; and Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b).

  • Offenders who meet with their victims are far more likely to be held directly accountable for their behavior and to successfully complete their restitution obligations (Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b).

  • Considerably fewer and less serious crimes are subsequently committed by offenders who met with their victims (Nugent and Paddock, 1995; Schneider, 1986; and Umbreit, 1994a and 1994b).

Multisite studies in Canada (Umbreit, 1995a and 1995c), England (Marshall and Merry, 1990; and Umbreit and Roberts, 1996), and the United States (Coates and Gehm, 1998; and Umbreit 1994a and 1994b) have confirmed the above findings.

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