Victim–Offender Dialogue: A Benefit to Youth and Society

The Bencher—September/October 2016

By Mary Kate Coleman, Esquire

Over the years, I heard a lot about Victim–Offender Dialogue (VOD) through the community mediation center for which I do work. I was intrigued enough by the concept to sign up for the training offered for potential volunteers. Participating as a facilitator struck me as a good way to volunteer and give back to the community and also to use some of the skills and techniques that I use in my work as a mediator and arbitrator.

VOD is a type of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). While some of the skills and techniques used in VOD are skills and techniques used in mediation, VOD is different from mediation. VOD is considered a “Restorative Justice” practice. Restorative Justice is a framework for looking at offending behavior in terms of the harms created by the behavior rather than by the rules that were broken.

In a VOD, the victim and offender meet in person in a safe location and, with the assistance of trained facilitators, talk about the crime or violation. During the meeting, the victim and offender talk about what occurred, who was harmed and who is responsible for the harm, and what can be done to make things as right as possible after the incident occurred.

In the community mediation center’s VOD program, we work with youth. Referrals come from probation officers and school principals. VOD is considered a diversionary program. In order to participate in the VOD, the youth must have been between the ages of 10 and 17 at the time of the offense. The youth must willing to do the following:

  • take some responsibility for his or her actions
  • talk about what happened and respond to questions
  • listen to how his or her actions affected others
  • participate actively in the VOD process.

Cases can involve a variety of violations or crimes. However, the center will not accept stalking cases or cases where there are prohibitive safety concerns. The process is free and voluntary; both victim and responsible youth must agree to participate. If the responsible youths do what they commit to doing in the VOD, they stay out of court and avoid adjudications on their records. 

After the staff determines that the case is appropriate for VOD and that both parties wish to participate, the case is assigned to two volunteer facilitators. The facilitators meet with the youth and victim separately in pre-dialogue meetings. These meetings permit the participants to begin processing what occurred and what needs to happen so that they are prepared for the VOD. During the pre-dialogue meetings, the two facilitators also determine if the process should move forward.

In the pre-dialogue meeting with the victim, the facilitators ask the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • How were you affected?
  • How were others in your life affected?
  • What has happened for you since that time?
  • What would you like to see happen now or in the future?
  • What would you like to ask or say to the youth?
  • What could the youth do to make things right?

The facilitators explain what to expect at the upcoming face-to-face meeting with the youth by reviewing the VOD process and asking the victim if he or she has any questions or concerns.

In the pre-dialogue meeting with the responsible youth and his or her support person, the facilitators ask the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • What caused you to act the way you did?
  • What were you thinking about or feeling when it occurred?
  • Who do you think was affected and how?
  • What has happened since the incident occurred?
  • How do you feel about it today?
  • For what do you take responsibility?
  • What would you do differently if you could?
  • What will you do differently in the future to ensure that this does not happen again?
  • What can you do to try to make things right?

The facilitators give the support person the opportunity to say how the incident has affected him or her. The facilitators explain what to expect at the upcoming face-to-face meeting with the victim by reviewing the VOD process and asking the youth and support person if they have any questions or concerns.

During the process, facilitators act in a fair, impartial, and non-judgmental manner. They use active listening skills. They aim to build rapport with the victim and youth. Additionally, the facilitators engage in reality testing: For example, if the victim (or youth) has an idea for a way for the youth to repair the harm or make restitution, the facilitators will discuss the idea with him or her to ensure that the task is realistic, achievable, and does not set the youth up for failure. During the pre-dialogue meetings, the facilitators also act as screeners for the next step. For example, if the youth indicates that he or she will not accept responsibility for the incident, the process ends so as to avoid re-traumatizing the victim.

If the facilitators determine that the process should move forward, the case is scheduled for a dialogue between the victim, the youth, and the youth’s support person. During the dialogue, the youth and victim share their stories and perspectives and the group hears from the support person. The questions asked are often the same questions that were asked in the pre-dialogue meeting. The facilitators ask the victim what he or she needs to have happen in order to make things as right as possible, then the youth responds with ideas for how to make things as right as possible. Creativity is encouraged and facilitators can help to brainstorm ideas.

Often agreements are reached as a result of the dialogue. If the youth does what he or she agrees to do, the youth stays out of court and avoids an adjudication on his or her record. If not, the case goes back to court or the referral source. In some cases, just having the dialogue is sufficient response to the incident and the case is closed. If no agreement is possible, the case is returned to court or the referral source.

VOD can be used for a variety of crimes and offenses. My involvement has been in cases arising out of incidents in school. I have found that it takes a lot of courage for youths to participate in the VOD process and to accept responsibility for their actions. I have a lot of respect for the young people who are able to do this. In the cases I have facilitated, the victims were caring people who wanted the youth to go down a better path. In one case in particular, the victim had been in a bit of trouble as a youth. The victim saw something special in the youth who committed the crime because the youth apologized immediately for the incident after it occurred. The victim told the youth during the dialogue that the victim was given a second chance when the victim was young and that the victim wanted the youth to also have a second chance. When such conversations occur, it is gratifying to be a part of the process.

Mary Kate Coleman, Esq., is an attorney, mediator, and arbitrator with the law firm of Riley Hewitt Witte & Romano, P.C. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a member of the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees and chair of the Editorial Board of The Bencher. She is a member of the W. Edward Sell AIC.

© 2016 MARY KATE COLEMAN, ESQ. This article was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.