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Restorative Group Conferencing

Also called Family Group Conferencing, Accountability Conferencing

Accountability Conferences involve the community of people most affected by the crime -- the victim and the offender; and the family, friends, and key supporters of both -- in deciding the resolution of a criminal incident. These affected parties are brought together by a trained facilitator to discuss how they and others have been harmed by the offense and how that harm might be repaired. To participate, the offender must admit to the offense.

The conference typically begins with the offender describing the incident, followed by each participant describing the impact of the incident on his or her life. Through this process, the offender is faced with the human impact of the behavior on all those present. The victim has the opportunity to express feelings and ask questions about the incident. After a thorough discussion of the impact of the offender's behavior, the victim is asked to identify desired outcomes from the conference, and thus help to shape the obligations that will be placed on the offender. All participants may contribute to the problem-solving process of determining how the offender might best repair the harm he or she has caused. The session ends with participants signing an agreement outlining their expectations and commitments.

Family group conferencing was developed from a Maori tradition in New Zealand, where it is currently used for most juvenile offenses. In Illinois, Accountability Conferencing, as they are typically called, is most often used as a diversion from the court process for juveniles, but can be used after adjudication to address unresolved emotional issues or to determine the specific terms of restitution.

Goals

The goals of family group conferencing include:

  • Providing an opportunity for the victim to be directly involved in the discussion of the offense and in decisions regarding appropriate sanctions to be placed on the offender.
  • Increasing the offender's awareness of the human impact of his or her behavior and provide an opportunity to take full responsibility for it.
  • Engaging the collective responsibility of the offender's support system for making amends and shaping the offender's future behavior.
  • Allow both offender and victim to reconnect to key community support systems.

Implementation

The accountability conferencing process has been implemented in schools, police departments, probation offices, and neighborhood groups. Either volunteers or paid employees can serve as facilitators after completing a required course of skills training. Besides involving the victim, offender, and their family members, a conference might involve other key people in the victim's and offender's lives such as teachers, other relatives, peers and special adult friends.

Lessons Learned

One study in New Zealand found that families of offenders are more frequently and actively involved in the justice process when they participate in a family group conference, rather than standard justice processes (Maxwell and Morris, 1993). It also found that the offenders and victims, as well as their families, reported that the conference process had been helpful. Preliminary program evaluations in the United States also indicate high levels of victim satisfaction with the process and high rates of compliance by offenders with the agreements reached during conferences including restitution paid. Practitioners observe a reduction in fear for many victims. When used as a diversion from court, conferencing provides a much speedier resolution of the incident than would otherwise be the case.

Practices