My first offender was a college sophomore who decided that the perfect place to have a party was the vacant home of a friend whose family was on vacation. We’ll never know whether she was being honest when she claimed not to have realized that the friend’s parents weren’t home. But what we do know is that thanks to her participation in the Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ), she escaped having a permanent record that might have gotten her kicked out of college, prevented her from obtaining gainful employment, or stopped her from getting credit.
As a C4RJ facilitator for close to 10 years, I like to think that I have contributed in some small way to helping ensure a brighter future for the dozens of offenders I have worked with. Due to growing demand from local police departments and criminal court judges, our program here in Eastern Massachusetts is expanding quickly. And it’s no wonder: The recidivism rate for restorative justice participants in the towns we service is significantly lower than for offenders who go through the usual court system, and the related costs are far lower than pursing criminal proceedings.
Regardless of the offender’s transgression (whether it’s shoplifting, trespassing, drinking, cyber identity fraud or vandalism) or their age (my offenders have ranged in age from 11-55), I learn something new with each case. I thought I would share some lessons I have learned along with way, many of which are directly applicable in situations where we have caused harm to any person, whether intentionally or not.
- Acknowledge your mistake. Making excuses, denying responsibility or minimizing the harm we have caused all constitute what we call “thinking errors,” which prevent us from learning from our mistakes. It’s important to own up to what you did in plain language, without offering a defense. Examples: I knew her parents wouldn’t be home, and I went to the party anyway. Or: I failed to show up to your meeting, even though I knew you were counting on me. Or: I realized you needed this information, but I didn’t share it with you. State clearly, and succinctly, exactly what you did (or didn’t do), and then pause.
- Apologize without reservation or condition. Express your regret for what you did, and acknowledge the implications to the other person, if you think you know what they are. (If not, see the next bullet.) Compare the following two apologies. 1) Sorry I didn’t get you the information you needed, but I’m juggling so many projects right now, and I wasn’t sure what information you really needed. I didn’t want to inundate you with a bunch of irrelevant stuff. Oh yeah, and have been caught in another fire drill. You know how that goes! 2) I’m sorry I didn’t get you the information. I bet you were forced to spend a lot of unnecessary time recreating it, which meant you either had to stay up late a few nights, or may have delayed other projects. I am so sorry. It won’t happen again. See the difference? The first is a litany of excuses, and in the second example, the one making the apology expresses empathy for the other person. At C4RJ, it takes many of our offenders three or four times before their apology letters to victims, the police, and especially their parents, strike the right notes.
- Seek to understand the impact of your misdeed. If we stop to put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we can usually guess how our actions or words affected the other person. In the opening circle of our C4RJ program, the victim lets the offender know how s/he was affected by the crime, which tends to have a transformative effect on both parties. To demonstrate empathy, we need to show that we are aware of the impact on the other person. Examples: “I bet that when you got the call from the police that kids were drinking in your house, you must have felt frightened and betrayed.” Or: “By not getting you my report on time, you couldn’t meet your commitments, which made you and our whole team look bad. Plus, you probably feel that you won’t be able to count on me to deliver on my commitments in the future.” Ask the other person to let you know whether you have accurately assessed the impact of your actions.
- Agree how best to make reparations, working together. In our C4RJ opening circles, all stakeholders (offender, victim, police officers, community members and facilitators) meet to share ideas as to how, exactly, offenders can help repair the harm. Almost always, this includes community service, apology letters, financial restitution, and a series of reflective exercises with facilitators. Consider what reparations you can make to a colleague or friend who you have disappointed. Example: “Since I left you in the lurch by not showing up, I will clear my schedule to give you whatever time you need. In the future, I will make sure you know in advance if I don’t plan to attend future meetings, and will get you whatever information you need ahead of time. What else can I do to make up for this?”
- Think carefully about what you did. Saying you’re sorry without reflecting on what led you to make questionable decisions won’t change your behavior for next time. In C4RJ, we use a “decision tree” to guide offenders through the decisions they made leading to their crime, probing as to what choices they would make for next time. We might ask something like: “When you got the text from Jane about the party, what should you have asked her about before saying yes? Why did you decide to go to this party instead of going to the movies with Bill? When you realized Jane’s parents weren’t home, what were your options?” Likewise, if I ignored my colleague’s plea for time-critical information, I might ask myself: “What stopped me from sending her that report? Why did I think that putting it off was somehow okay? How could I have helped her in another way if I couldn’t send the report?”
- Work to regain lost trust. In the case of our offenders, it’s usually the parents whose faith is most shaken. When we need to regain the trust of someone who means a lot to us, it’s worth asking something like: “What actions or behaviors would convince you that I can be trusted?” Ask for specifics and examples to make sure you’re both in synch. A parent might want a child to choose more responsible friends or to say no to parties where they suspect alcohol or drugs will be consumed. A colleague may ask that we check in more frequently, respond to communications more reliably, or include them in more conversations.
- Circle back. At our closing circle in C4RJ, we convene the same stakeholders who gathered at the opening circle. We ask the offender what exactly s/he did to repair the harm and which lessons were the most enlightening or difficult. We make sure that the victims feel they have been “made whole” by this process before closing the circle, expunging all records, leaving our offender with a clean slate and our victim a sense that justice has truly been served.
Working with such a vibrant restorative justice program has made me a much better facilitator, especially when it comes to encouraging people to listen intently so they can internalize, and then play back, the implications of their words and actions on others. If you have a chance to volunteer for a restorative justice program in your area, I can almost guarantee that your life, and those you serve, will be much richer for it.
Communities for Restorative Justice , based in Concord, MA, which serves more than a dozen towns nearby
Listening is an Overlooked Leadership Tool – HBR blog, May 2016
Just Because You’re Silent, You May Not Be Listening