Virginia's Judicial System

Restorative Justice in Prince William County

It's a warm autumn afternoon in a busy neighborhood. A group of teenagers is hanging out playing football when two friends, Ben and Amy, get into a verbal argument over a play that turns into an angry fight. As Ben walks away shouting, he picks up the football and throws it in the direction of the other kids. It hits Amy on the right side of her face. The injury requires immediate surgery to repair damage to Amy's nose and mouth. Everyone agrees that Ben did not intentionally aim the football at Amy. Nevertheless, Ben is charged with a felony assault and battery. The medical bills are extensive. Ben is thirteen.

This is a typical scenario played out over and over in our neighborhoods and schools. The resolution of such a case for the offender within the traditional justice system may include restitution paid to the victim for the medical bills, probation and/or community service, and, most damaging to the youth, a criminal record that may follow him into adulthood. The offender may never understand how his actions have affected others. The victim may never be given the opportunity to face the offender or to be involved in the dispensation of justice, and most justice officials will acknowledge that payment of restitution is difficult to enforce in juvenile cases. The conflicts from cases like this continue sometimes for years, sparking further incidents.

There is a more effective and victim-centered way of dealing with crime that is emerging in our communities here in Virginia and all over the world. Restorative Justice is a set of principles that guides programs that are fostering this change in justice processes. The guiding principle is that crime is an act committed against a person or community, not an act committed against the state and that those people most affected by the crime should be the people who decide how justice should be served.

Back to Ben and Amy. This case was sent to the Restorative Justice Program in Prince William County as a diversion (an alternative to the juvenile court process). First, Ben went through a series of classes that focus on teaching kids the impact of crime on victims and on the community and how to resolve conflicts without violence. The Victim Impact Classes also provide anger management tips and teach kids how to avoid peer pressure. Ben then participated in a Restorative Justice Conference with his family and the victim and her family.

The conference is facilitated by a neutral party and involves all those persons affected by the incident. After a dialog session, in which everyone tells how they were affected by the incident, the group works together to come up with an agreement for reparation of harm. In Ben and Amy's case, the families, who had been close friends and neighbors for many years, were not speaking at all as a result of the incident; and conflict in the neighborhood over the situation was continuing. The conference is confidential, so I can't share with you all the wonderful details, but the families left arm in arm. There were tears, shouts, hugs, sincere remorse and heartfelt apologies. An agreement took care of all the outstanding medical bills (which will have Ben working a lot of hours) and mended friendships. Ben does not have a court record. Ben and Amy are back playing football while their parents watch, together.

The Prince William County Restorative Justice Program (PWCRJP) receives around 250 referrals per year. Most are diversions, as with Ben's case. The rest come directly from the Juvenile Judges. Case types include larceny, assault, arson, shoplifting, vandalism and disruptive behavior. According to the US Department of Justice, the national re-offense rate for juveniles in the traditional justice system is 80%! Once a youth gets on the treadmill of re-offending, it's hard to get off; and it usually begins with a simple misdemeanor charge. A five-year study just completed of the Prince William County program this year shows a 10% recidivism rate for those juveniles participating in the Restorative Justice program!

We believe that the program works so well in deterring crime because it focuses on personal accountability and not just "punishing" the offender. It's a win-win situation. Young offenders learn how their actions affect others and that they must be personally responsible to their victims and to their families. Victims are given the opportunity to be heard and receive direct compensation for their losses from the person or persons that hurt them. Victims' needs are primary in the process.

There are currently several different Restorative Justice models being used in Virginia including family group conferences, community circles, victim impact classes and reparative boards. Most programs are housed in community mediation centers, court service units and schools. What is most important in any model is that the victim of the crime is given the full opportunity to be involved at all levels of the process and that the program prescribes to the basic principles of Restorative Justice.

The PWCRJP has been operating since 1997, when a task force was formed to look into the feasibility of such a program. The Prince William County Office of Dispute Resolution, headed by Dotty Larson, was chosen to begin the pilot program and the rest is history as they say! The program has been going strong since then and is now fully funded by Prince William County. We are currently beginning to accept referrals involving adult offenders. The Commonwealth Attorney will make the referral at the arraignment.

The only criterion for acceptance into the program initially is that the offender must admit involvement in the incident. Participation by the victim is, of course, always voluntary. About 85% of victims agree to participate in the conference. 100% of victims report being satisfied with the process and outcome of the conference. Compliance with agreements is 98%. Offenders tend to comply much more with agreements that they helped to create. Many of the offenders end up working directly for the victim to pay back financial restitution. Many of the youth end up forming relationships with the victims and work for the victims long after the restitution is paid off.

Six years ago, there were 12 known Restorative Justice programs in the United States. Current statistics now show as many as 480 Restorative Justice programs operating in almost all fifty states! The movement for positive change in the criminal justice system from punitive, non-effective measures to a more victim-centered focus that is more effective at deterring crime and building community is transforming the criminal justice system, one person at a time.

Submitted by Vickie Shoap, Coordinator, Prince William County Restorative Justice Program

This page last modified: March 26, 2003