WASHINGTON (CNS) — Given the national climate about crime and law enforcement, it seems almost unthinkable that crime victims would want to meet the men and women convicted of those crimes in prison to seek some kind of healing for the pain they experienced years ago, and which might never have really gone away.

However, the practice is growing, and working, say advocates in the field of restorative justice.

The recidivism rate for offenders who have gone through restorative justice “family group conferences” is less than one-sixth that of those who have not, according to Margaret Pfeil, who is a theologian on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame and who has lived for the past 12 years in a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in South Bend, Indiana, with former prison inmates among the “guests.”


The process of getting to the point where a victim would want to go into a prison to meet the convicted inmate — and the inmate being willing to take part in the process — takes time, Pfeil said Nov. 6.

She made the comments in an address at “A New Path to Justice: A Conference on Criminal Justice Reform in the Year of Mercy,” held at The Catholic University of America in Washington. It was sponsored by the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty/Promote Restorative Justice, the university’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, Mount St. Mary’s University and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Pfeil offered several questions for discernment that must be answered first: Who has been harmed? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these? Who has a stake in this particular situation? What are the causes? What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right and address underlying causes?

Beyond that, she said, there are several goals for family group conferences: accountability, victim involvement, family empowerment, consensus decision-making, cultural appropriateness and due process.

Likewise, Pfeil added, there are seven principles to be followed in the conference format: avoiding criminal proceedings, not using justice for assistance, strengthening families, keeping offenders in the community, taking the offender’s age into account, using the least restrictive option and considering the victim’s interests.

“If we want to implement restorative justice processes in this country, we have to start with the system we have,” Pfeil said, pointing to mediation. “That’s one model we can practice in our community.”

Taking note of the federal Department of Justice’s decision to grant early release to an estimated 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders, she asked, “What might it mean to walk alongside them? … I, as a white, middle-class woman, have never had to go through the system the way our Catholic Worker guests have had to.”

Participation in family conferences is strictly voluntary, Pfeil said. In response to a question about victims of sexual violence, she replied, “It is up to the person who has experienced the hurt to decide if she wants, or he wants, to bring the person who committed the offense into the circle.”

Pfeil recalled one instance where one such victim, who took part in a conference before sentencing, said, “I don’t want him to lose his job. I want him to pay for my self-defense classes.” It was later revealed that her attacker had been abused himself when he was younger.

Janine Geske, who served a 10-year term as a justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, said she first heard of the concept of restorative justice while serving as a judge on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. “I thought it was the silliest thing I ever heard.” She soon discovered otherwise.

In the criminal justice system, “the focus is on the offender,” Geske said. “In restorative justice, the focus is on the victim.”

Questions that are important for Geske to have answered before a face-to-face meeting between victim and offender include, “What was that harm?” She added that more than half of marriages after a sexual assault “dissolve because of the terrible trauma.”

Another is, “How does the community go about repairing the harm?” Forgiveness, Geske said, is “not something you can check off it it’s a serious crime.”

“It takes six months to two years to prepare them for that meeting,” Geske said, adding, “We only do victim-initiated dialogues,” as an offender-initiated dialogue “can re-traumatize them.”

In the Wisconsin conferences she helps organize, Geske said, “We’re trying to create a safe environment for a difficult conversation. I’m avoiding Jerry Springer moments at all costs,” a reference to the daytime talk show that regularly feature guests’ eruptions over paternity tests and sexual dalliances.

Geske’s work with family conferences has gotten noticed, although not always in the right spirit. “Dr. Phil’s people called” once, she said, asking if she could do a family conference on their own daytime talk show. Her response: “We don’t do it that way.”

“Dr. Phil” did one anyway without her, Geske said, “and, naturally, it exploded” on camera.