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Community Conferencing Program

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Community Conferencing Program

Instead of punishing people who break the law, what if the justice system helped everyone affected by a wrongful act to find their own peace?

 

Our criminal court asks ‘who did it?’ and ‘what punishment is appropriate?’

Another words, it’s retributive. That is, it determines whether an individual has broken the law, and if so, it metes out appropriate punishment

There is, however, another way to restore peace, and that’s through restorative justice practices.

Restorative justice practices differ from retributive justice in several distinct ways.

First, it recognises that criminal acts harm not only the individual victims, but communities, even the offenders who are also victims of their actions.

Second, restorative forms of justice repair the harm caused by wrongful actions by involving all affected parties in finding the right outcomes.

And cogently, restorative justice requires the offender to admit guilt and take responsibility for their actions. This is not the same as pleading guilty; rather it is about a meaningful acknowledgement that harm has been caused and must be repaired.

At its heart, restorative justice measures success by how much harm is repaired or prevented, rather than measuring how much punishment is inflicted.

How it works in practice

At the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, we use conferencing—a form of restorative justice—to assist the victims and offenders to resolve the issues before the issue drags everyone into the courtroom.

Conferencing is a face-to-face meeting, or series of meetings, facilitated by a convenor. In our case, by our in-house conferencing convenor.

Conferences involve the victim(s), offender(s), and any members of the community affected by the crime, including witnesses, family members of both sides, even the police involved in the matter.

All participants sit in a circle. This seemingly unimportant detail is actually the crux of the conference.

The circle says that no one is in a position of power, and the configuration maximises direct conversation and non-verbal communications between participants.

The facilitator leads the group through three stages so that each participant:

  • describes what they did, or observed, or had related to them. 
  • Hears and feels how other participants have been affected

And from these honest, often painful revelations come the shared understanding of what caused the conflict and how it affects everyone present.

Participants then:

  • Come to agreed solutions to repair their situation. They can work together to prevent something similar occurring again, and often work on fundamental, positive changes.

What happens after a community conference is dependent on the situation being dealt with and what actions may have resulted.

  • In cases involving a single incident or dispute, one community conference is usually sufficient. In these cases, some participants may need to complete actions agreed to during the community conferencing.
  • In cases involving ongoing and deep-rooted conflicts, several community conferences may be required to deal with the conflicts and to resolve the situation and prevent it from happening again. In these cases, participants including citizens and professionals may be assigned tasks to complete after each meeting in preparation for the next.  

Participants often face seemingly intractable, hurdles before they are ready to talk to either the person they have harmed or who has caused them harm, but conveners bring everyone to a conference by meeting participants in preparatory conversations in the weeks, sometimes months, leading up to the conference.

Importantly, the path from conflict to cooperation cannot be rushed; no one is cajoled into participating and the victim’s well-being is paramount.

By ensuring everyone involved has a safe forum to tell his or her story and be part of the solution, restorative justice practices give people the ability to account for their actions, have a voice, and come up with lasting solutions to peace.

What issues is community conferencing designed to handle?

Community conferencing is suitable for a wide range of settings, including youth and adult criminal systems, neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools.

Why does the NJC advocate restorative justice practices?

At a grassroots level, we use conferencing to support citizens take stewardship and responsibility for repairing interpersonal conflicts in ways that keep the strong arm of the law at arm’s length.

Independent research conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology says that restorative justice processes [of which community conferencing is one] looks to be more effective for more prolific offenders, and more effective for more serious offenders[1]

Additional benefits of restorative justice strategies include victim satisfaction, offender responsibility for their actions, and greater compliance with court orders[2].

Can the courts use community conferencing to reduce reoffending?

We designed our conferencing program specifically to handle community-based conflict and harm, and many conferences have included Victoria Police.

Our program is based the work of the leader in community conferencing, the Baltimore Community Conferencing Centre.

Having run a number of successful conferences, the NJC says the program has wider application within the criminal justice system as a means to reduce reoffending.

 

For more information contact the NJC on 9948 8777 or njc@justice.vic.gov.au

 



[1] Restorative Justice in the Australian Criminal Justice System, AIC Reports 127.
[2] Ibid

 

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Reviewed: 15/5/2017 © 2016 State Government of Victoria