Victim-Offender Mediation

Policymakers, social workers, and researchers have long been reflecting on how to respond to youth crime. In recent years, the concern that traditional approaches stemming from retributive and rehabilitative models of justice may no longer be viable responses to criminal acts has increased the interest in alternative measures and approaches originated within the restorative justice model. Central to this model is the notion that a criminal act is an offense against a victim within the context of a community, as opposed to a violation against the state. Thus, a criminal act engenders a conflict among people and harms the victim; justice cannot be achieved unless that conflict is solved and that harm repaired. Based on this view, the offender along with other individuals affected by the criminal act (e.g., victim, community members) actively participate in the resolution of the conflict, with the help of a fair and impartial third party. Several measures have been developed within the restorative model; of these measures, the oldest and most frequently adopted is victim-offender mediation (VOM).

This entry provides a definition of victim-offender mediation, describes its goals, and outlines the key components of the VOM process, including the role of the mediator. It then discusses the relation between VOM and the criminal proceeding in the juvenile justice system. It also summarizes evidence on the type of cases that are likely to be mediated and the motivations behind victims’ and offenders’ decisions to participate in VOM and describes victims’ and offenders’ perceptions of the VOM process. It also reviews the evidence concerning the relation between participation in VOM and later recidivism among juvenile offenders. Reflections on the present and the future of VOM practice and research are offered as conclusive remarks.

What Is Victim-Offender Mediation?

Victim-offender mediation is a process through which victims of crimes meet the offender in a structured and safe environment. As a practice, VOM involves a face-to-face meeting between the victim and the offender in the presence of a trained mediator. The goal of VOM is to create the opportunity for the victim and the offender to engage in a dialogue addressing their informational and emotional needs. The VOM process cannot begin until the offender acknowledges his or her responsibility for the offense. Thus, VOM does not deal with issues revolving around establishing the truth about the occurrence of the offense but focuses on the consequences of the offense.

The importance of conflict resolution distinguishes VOM from other forms of mediation (e.g., mediation in custody cases or in divorce cases) in which the emphasis is placed on reaching a settlement rather than on addressing the emotional consequences of the facts in questions.

What Happens During Victim-Offender Mediation?

In most of the victim-offender mediation programs, prior to the actual mediation, the mediator contacts and meets separately with the victim and the offender. During these sessions, the mediator evaluates whether the parties are willing and able to engage in VOM; the mediator also prepares the parties for the subsequent meeting (e.g., by correcting unrealistic expectations). To avoid feelings of rejection that may induce a sense of revictimization, the victim is typically contacted after the offender has already agreed to take part in VOM.

During the actual VOM meeting, the victim and the offender talk to each other about the crime, discuss the effects of the crime on their lives, and describe their feelings about it. At times, more than one mediation meeting is necessary to complete the process. In some practices, family and community members join the victim and the offender in the meetings (i.e., family group conferencing, conferencing).

As a result of the VOM process, the victim and the offender may choose to create a mutually agreeable plan to repair any material and psychological damages that resulted from the crime. Research indicates that VOM is largely successful, and an agreement between the parties is reached more than 90% of the times. The reparation plan may include direct compensation to the victim, work for the victim, and community service. Research suggests that when reparation plans are generated within VOM, reparation is completed more frequently than when reparation is court imposed.

What Is the Relation Between Victim-Offender Mediation and the Criminal Proceeding?

In the United States, there is great variability in the relation between victim-offender mediation and the criminal proceeding. In some cases, VOM is attempted as a diversion measure, as when a juvenile case is diverted to mediation services in the early stages of a criminal proceeding and does not reenter the juvenile justice system, assuming that the mediation agreement is completed. In other cases, VOM is the condition for probation following an admission of guilt accepted by the court. Finally, in some cases, VOM is attempted in the postadjudication phase. Such variability exists in other countries as well, such as those in the European Union, except that VOM is not a common practice in the postadjudication phase. Furthermore, the practice of VOM in Europe is frequently an inherent part of the criminal procedure (at certain stages of the proceeding, the case may be referred to a mediation service), so that if the mediation process is successful, there will be a tangible impact on the case sentence. The variability observed appears to depend largely on the characteristics of legal and policy tradition specific to each country rather than on considerations pertaining specifically to the practice of VOM with juvenile offenders.

Who Participates in Victim-Offender Mediation and Why?

Participation in victim-offender mediation depends largely on the criteria for case referral and, critically, on the parties’ willingness to partake in the process. Various referral criteria have been used, such as the age of the offender, whether the offense is more or less severe, or whether it was committed by a first-time offender. Traditionally, VOM has mostly involved juvenile offenders who had committed crimes against property and minor assaults. However, more recently, there has been a tendency to broaden the scope of VOM and extend this practice to more serious offenses and to adult offenders, although it should be noted that the seriousness of the offense may deter victims’ participation.

Victims’ and Offenders’ Motivations

Research indicates that approximately 60% to 70% of victims who are offered the opportunity to partake in VOM do so. When asked what motivates their decision to undergo the VOM process, victims express a desire for restitution and a desire to see the offender held accountable, learn about the reasons behind the offender’s actions, share the pain caused by the crime, help the offender change, and avoid court processing.

High percentages of participation are also observed among juvenile offenders. With respect to motivations, there is some indication that juvenile offenders choose to participate in order to take responsibility for the criminal acts they have committed, apologize to the victim, and move on with their lives.

To date, little is known about the motivations behind the decision not to participate in VOM. Victims seem to emphasize either the triviality of the offense or, at the other end of the spectrum, the fear that the VOM meeting may not be safe. As for offenders, there is initial evidence that they may opt out of VOM because their lawyers advise them against participating. Indeed, the admission of responsibility for a crime, a necessary condition for VOM, raises issues of legal safeguards for juveniles.

Victims’ and Offenders’ Perceptions of VOM

A number of studies have examined the consequences of participating in the victim-offender mediation process for victims and offenders. Specifically, extant investigations have focused on individual participants’ satisfaction with VOM and perception of fairness of the process. The picture emerging across these investigations is clear: The vast majority of victims and offenders report being satisfied with the process and with the resulting agreement (i.e., between 80% and 90% according to some reports).

Victims’ Perceptions

Results from research suggest that victims who meet with their offenders are more likely to be satisfied with the criminal justice system’s response to their case than victims of comparable offenses who do not meet their offender and whose case undergoes criminal prosecution. The main factors associated with victims’ satisfaction are that the victim deemed the restitution plan as fair, appreciated the role of the mediator, and had a strong inherent motivation to meet the offender. This latter factor, together with the consideration that participation in VOM occurs only on a voluntary basis, highlights the possibility that self-selection may be a key component of long-term satisfaction. Thus, long-term satisfaction may be accounted for by preexisting differences between individuals who agree and individuals who do not agree to partake in the process. Although it is possible that individuals who view the outcomes of VOM more positively hold more favorable views of it in the first place, which makes it difficult to isolate the effects of VOM per se, the close connection between the voluntary nature of VOM and its outcomes underscores the fact that choice and direct participation are germane to the restorative justice approach and its effects.

Offenders’ Perceptions

Results from research also indicate that participating in VOM is also largely positive for juvenile offenders who report having understood their mistakes and the consequences of their mistakes for the victim; furthermore, feelings of internal change have been reported. Nevertheless, a tendency to use the VOM process instrumentally as a way to conviction has also been observed.

Victim-Offender Mediation and Recidivism

Victim-offender mediation and other measures grounded in the restorative justice model have met with unprecedented interest in the past decade. This interest in part reflects the disaffection toward more traditional approaches that are deemed to have failed to reduce the prevalence and recidivism of youth crime. A number of studies have examined whether participation in VOM is associated with decreased prevalence and severity of recidivism in youth crime. The outcomes of these studies have been summarized in recent meta-analytic work and indicate that juveniles who underwent VOM were less likely to re-offend a year after VOM, and when they did so, the new offenses were less severe than those that originally resulted in VOM participation.

These results have been considered promising evidence in favor of the efficacy of VOM in reducing youth crime. However, these studies suffer from some methodological limitations. For one, only in a small subset of them were juvenile offenders randomly assigned to VOM as compared with other intervention measures. If the cases were referred for VOM because they were considered particularly amenable to this form of intervention, the differences in recidivism may reflect inherent differences between the VOM group and the comparison group. Furthermore, even when randomization procedures were employed, participation in VOM was still voluntary. This intrinsic characteristic of the process makes it difficult to evaluate the effects of VOM in an unbiased fashion.

The Future of Victim-Offender Mediation

Over the past three decades, victim-offender mediation has witnessed increasing interest in several parts of the world. VOM is appealing because it is rooted in shared values of solidarity, reparation, and a sense of justice, while it holds the promise of becoming an effective measure for reducing and preventing youth crime and for increasing citizens’ sense of security.

To maintain such a promise, extant research results should be confirmed by more extensive investigations employing rigorous designs, including studies in which individuals are randomly assigned to VOM, experimental and control groups are measured on key variables pre- and post-VOM, and the effects of VOM are followed up longitudinally over several years.

References:

  1. Mestitz, A., & Ghetti, S. (2005). Victim-offender mediation with youth offenders in Europe. An overview and comparison of 15 countries. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
  2. Morris, A., & Maxwell, G. (2001). Restorative justice for juveniles. Conferencing, mediation and circles. Oxford, UK: Hart.
  3. Umbreit, M. S. (2001). The handbook of victim-offender mediation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Umbreit, M. S., Coates, R. B., & Vos, B. (2004). Victim-offender mediation: Three decades of practice and research. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 22, 279-303.

Read more about Juvenile Offenders in Forensic Psychology.