Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs (VORP) were formed in the
mid 1970's with the promise of restoring relationships between victims,
offender, and the community. With the assistance of a trained mediator,
individuals who have been convicted of a crime are brought face-to-face
with the victim of the crime. From the beginning, the primary goal
of VORP has been to promote reconciliation between victim and offender.
Victim participation in the criminal justice system is another goal.
Increased participation provides the victim with a voice, answers to
questions not typically asked in a traditional trial setting, and improves
the chance of a restitution agreement that will meet the needs of the
victim. Restitution to the victim, directly from the offender, is another
goal. VORP traditionalists see restitution as a by-product, rather
than the sole purpose, of the mediation. Offender rehabilitation is
another goal. VORP proponents believe that chances for rehabilitation
are increased as the offender is able to put a face to his or her victim,
while accepting responsibility and accountability for his or her actions.
The final goal is empowerment of the offender. VORP provides the offender
with an appropriate means for alleviating feelings of guilt, shame,
This research includes an examination of the first VORP program in
the United States. Volunteer mediators were interviewed in an effort
to describe the VORP process as it is currently being practiced in
this mediation center. The research presented in this paper is intended
to provide a snapshot of a narrow range of current activity. This paper
represents a small part of a larger research project. Much work is
yet to be done. A number of issues that need to be examined are discussed
along with the presentation of the work that has been completed. At
this time, the information presented below is limited to a very brief
period in the life of this center. I am not trying to describe the
entire life cycle of this or any other center. The results should not
be generalized to other Victim-Offender mediation programs.
The VORP studied for this research is contained within the Center
for Community Justice (CCJ) in Elkhart, Indiana. Cases are referred
to the center by county judges. The majority of cases are relatively
minor and most include a juvenile offender. Offenders are generally
sentenced to community service, probation of varying lengths, educational
programs (such as parenting skills), and restitution in an amount to
be determined. The judge generally withholds final sentencing until
the mediation takes place. The mediated agreement then becomes part
of the final sentence. The offender is required to participate in VORP
mediation as a term of his or her sentence. Victims are not required
Program coordinators oversee the assignment of VORP cases. The coordinators
work closely with the offender's probation officer to assure that the
offender can be contacted. In most cases the mediation occurs several
months after the offense, often a year later, so parties may be difficult
to reach. Cases are assigned to volunteer mediators who are responsible
for contacting the parties to answer initial questions, inquire as
to their willingness to participate in the mediation, and arrange a
time for the mediation to take place. Mediations are usually held in
one of the conference rooms at the CCJ offices. The mediator is responsible
for scheduling and conducting the mediation, writing the agreement,
and returning the signed agreement to the program coordinator.
In the Elkhart program, mediator training generally includes 15-20
hours of training. The training includes a description of VORP mediation,
an overview of where VORP fits into the justice system, and a variety
of skills practices. Reflective listening, methods of promoting communication
between parties, and numerous role plays are generally included. Individuals
selected to participate in the training sessions often have prior mediation
or counseling experience. After the initial training, those chosen
to become mediators observe at least one mediation and are usually
observed during their first mediation. Since the mediators often have
fairly strong mediation and communication skills before the training,
these steps may not be followed in each instance.
Seven of the 11 active VORP mediators were interviewed for this research.
Two mediators are employed as program coordinators. These individuals
were not interviewed in light of the possibility that they, as administrators,
may have different experiences than others. Two other mediators chose
not to be interviewed. The interviews took place within a two week
period, were completed over the phone, tape recorded (with permission),
Mediator experience varied across the group. One mediator said he
had done over 20 cases, another had completed just one. The average
was about 8-10 mediations. Mediators had been with the center for 1-4
years, with most reporting that they had been volunteer mediators for
about three years. Several mediators expressed disappointment about
not being asked to do more mediations. When they agreed to volunteer
they were asked to commit to at least one case per month. None of them
were working at close to that level. Reasons for the low number of
cases have not been adequately determined at this stage of the research.
This will be an important issue to examine as this research expands
beyond the initial set of interviews.
Mediation Through the Eyes of Mediators
Issues addressed in the interviews included training, prior experience,
motivations for volunteering, perceptions of the mediator's role, neutrality,
and ways to define a VORP mediation as a success. The mediators were
also asked to talk about their perception of the goals of VORP. Finally,
the mediators were asked to talk about specific cases in which they
believed that victim offender mediation was, or perhaps was not, an
appropriate method for addressing issues regarding victims, offenders,
and the needs of the community as a whole. Much of the following is
based on the mediators' comments. My intent is to provide a descriptive,
rather than evaluative, picture of what occurs in this program.
Training, Prior Experience, and Motivation
Each of the mediators was asked to reflect
on his or her training as well as the extent to which prior life
experiences have proven to
be helpful in the effort to mediate issues between victim and offender.
Although the mediators reported different training experiences, most
believed that the training had adequately prepared them to be mediators.
Two mediators expressed concerns regarding their comfort level after
the initial training sessions. Each reported that the center's coordinators "did
not push them into mediation right away." This allowed the individuals
an opportunity to observe mediations until they felt comfortable going
on their own.
Several mediators reported that they had participated
in mediation or other conflict resolution training prior to becoming
VORP. One talked about mediation training in college, another was an
active arbitrator, another had been a union representative, and another
was a member of the clergy. Others reported that prior life experiences
were helpful. These experiences included counseling and employment
related experiences. An older mediator, who is retired from the workforce,
said that his "life was a valuable experience" that aided him in his
efforts to mediate. One mediator reported that during his training
session it appeared that all participants "had the basic life criteria
to be mediators and had already done that in other aspects of their
life, even though it wasn't considered or called mediation."
Several mediators referred to the size of their training classes.
None of them appeared to know that they were currently among a group
of mediators that was smaller than the classes in which they first
learned VORP mediation. Future research will examine reasons for this
attrition. The VORP coordinators exercise discretion regarding who
will actually be assigned cases. It will be interesting to examine
the criteria used to make these decisions. It is likely that others
choose not to mediate after participating in the training. Reasons
for dropping out will also be examined.
The current group of mediators hopes to continuing their volunteer
work with the CCJ. They were motivated to volunteer for a variety of
reasons and the motivation to volunteer continues. In fact, many of
the volunteers want to increase their involvement. Reasons for initially
volunteering included spare time during retirement, curiosity, the
belief in volunteerism, and a desire to give back to the community.
Several reported that they were searching for positive experiences
that would counteract negative experiences at work. Motivations to
continue as active mediators include the initial reasons, as well as
the experience based belief that VORP is a valuable alternative to
other mechanisms of justice. It is clear that these individuals have
had positive experiences as mediators and that these experiences are
VORP Goals and the Definition of Success
Each mediator was asked to discuss the goals of VORP mediation. The
responses were fairly consistent, yet the language used may be indicative
of an interesting inconsistency. Each mediator talked about bringing
victim and offender together. The mediators all felt that it was important
to get repayment for any monetary loss. The majority talked about the
importance of encouraging the offenders to recognize the impacts of
their actions. Inconsistencies appeared as the mediators discussed
VORP goals in the context of an attempt to define a mediation as a
success. For most, the ultimate goal was a written restitution agreement.
Only one talked about reconciliation, although others discussed closure,
information for the victim, and apologies. None discussed restoration
of offender, victim, and community.
The majority felt that it was important that
the mediation lead to a written agreement that included a plan for
restitution. The mediators
knew that the agreement was going to go back to a judge, who would
most likely rubber stamp the restitution agreement (this was the mediators'
perception and may not be the reality of the situation). One mediator
discussed his method for encouraging agreement. He warned offenders
that the paperwork "would be going back to the judge, whether the offender
agreed to restitution or not." This individual stressed that the judge
would not look kindly on a refusal to take responsibility. Another
mediator also mentioned the judge threat, although it appeared that
this mediator was a little less confrontive about the potential for
a negative reaction from the judge. Another mediator talked about the
importance of leading the offender to "face up to his behavior." For
the majority, restitution was the primary goal and was a necessary
element in the effort to define a mediation as a success.
Other mediators had a clearer understanding
of the concepts associated with restorative justice. One talked about
feeling good about mediations
in which both parties "can come out of (the mediation) with a very
good feeling about themselves." Another talked about VORP as a good
method for bringing the parties together so "the offender can realize
what he has done and take steps to avoid that behavior in the future." Two
mediators talked about cases in which the victim showed a genuine concern
for the offender. In each of these cases the victim did not want monetary
compensation. The victims' wanted to know if the offender had taken
any steps to stay out of trouble. In one of these cases the victim
offered the offender a job. The mediator in each of these cases talked
about the generosity of the victim. Each mediator discussed this as
a positive alternative to the behavior of many victims. One mediator
said that other victims had "been somewhat interested (in the offender),
but mostly I find them motivated by money. They want to get the money
It is clear that these mediators, although a fairly small group,
had a wide variety of opinions regarding the goals and successes of
VORP mediation. It is unclear whether the varying opinions are a result
of training, experience, personal opinion, or other factors. Information
regarding the root of these opinions could be very helpful to the mediation
center. If the center prefers a more uniform approach, it will be important
to stress the center's goals in training and to reinforce these goals
throughout the mediator's experience. As this research continues, it
will be interesting to determine the extent to which these opinions
mirror those of the center.
Neutrality, Power Imbalance, and Case Selection
Neutrality was one of the major issues discussed
in the interviews. Each mediator discussed neutrality, but did not
feel that this neutrality
meant that victims and offenders could do and say whatever they wanted.
The mediators were neutral to the extent that they did not openly take
sides, but most mediators were active in assuring that the process
remained respectful to everyone involved. In some cases neutrality
allowed mediators to protect the offender. One mediator talked about
angry victims with punishment on their mind. This mediator tells these
victims that "the court has already done the punishing" and that the
victim should "consider that these youngsters were trying to turn around
and become useful citizens." This mediator felt that "we have to remember
they are kids. You can't punish them like adults."
Other mediators made similar statements regarding
the protection of juvenile offenders. Many felt that it was important
be included in the mediation, although the motives for including the
parents were inconsistent. Some felt that young offenders would be
disadvantaged if their parents were not involved in the mediation.
These mediators believed that parents could play an active role in
the process. Another mediator allowed parents as guests, but felt that
it was the mediotor's job to be sure that "the children were not mistreaated." One
mediator stated that he would not take cases in which children were
involved. He believed that parents would attend the sessions and defend
their children. The mediator felt that these kids "were usually wronger
than two left shoes. But the parents would always say it was someone
else's fault, they were very disruptive and I couldn't get to the main
part of my job because of them interupting. . . . sometimes the kids
would tell you the truth, you know, ‘Yeah, I did this, I screwed up.'
But the parents would always blame someone else."
Each mediator acknowledged that at times it was difficult to remain
neutral. They felt that neutrality, or at least the appearance of neutrality,
was crucial to the process. However, many of the mediators admitted
to strong feelings about the parties and said that they often took
sides. The mediators took sides because they were human, yet as mediators
thay were able to keep their opinions secret. As we know, neutrality
is a major component of mediation. It is closely related to the issue
of empowering a party who is the potential victim of a power imbalance.
In VORP mediation one person, the offender, is most likely in a situation
with little power. As discussed above, several mediators took steps
to assure that the victim did not use his or her power to force an
agreement that a juvenile could not live with.
Most mediators appeared to believe that complete neutrality in a
situation of power imbalance only served to endorse the behavior of
the more powerful party. Others felt that the VORP process was intended
to involve a power imbalance and that the process was weighted in favor
or victims who deserved an apology and monetary restitution. These
mediators saw their role in a somewhat different way than other mediators.
They appeared to value efficiency over communication. As this research
proceeds it will be interesting to examine the awareness of, and the
concern over, unequal power between the parties.
One mediator talked about how the behavior
of the parties would lead him to secretly favor one over the other.
This mediator said that there
were times when the offender was "truly sorry and regretful of what
they've done and I find myself seeing pretty far with them and wishing
that the victim would take it a bit easy on them. But then there have
also been times when the offender was just messed up in the head, and
has no sense of what they've done wrong, and is just kind of smart
mouthing around. Then I definitely side with the victim on that. It
can go either way depending on their attitudes."
Several mediators described mediations that
VORP experts would agree were not appropriate for VORP mediation.
In some cases the offender
was attempting to retry the case. In others, the power imbalance was
so strong that it may have been preferable to resolve the issues in
a less neutral forum. Several cases included multiple offenders in
which just one showed up for mediation. The victim wanted his or her
money and the single offender was left "holding the bag" for the group,
many of whom refused to participate in the mediation. While this may
have provided a clear lesson about his or her choice of "friends," it
is not be likely to lead the offender to believe in the justness on
As stated above, my intent is to be descriptive rather than evaluative.
That said, it is possible to summarize the information in a way that
may provide suggestions to the program directors. These observations
and suggestions are listed below.