Closing circles

A state-sponsored program of restorative justice enables victims to forgive and criminals to be forgiven.

October 3, 2006 00:32

handcuffs 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Even though her family-run store was robbed more than two years ago, Dalia (not her real name) remembers with clarity how she felt after realizing that a total stranger had violated her personal space. "You suddenly feel like a zero," says Dalia, who runs a supermarket in the Haifa area with her husband. "I believe that everyone is surrounded by a circle. It is their private zone. When someone invades that area, they penetrate into your soul and crawl under you skin." "There is hurt on many levels," she continues. "There is the personal damage, the economic hurt and you suddenly find it difficult to trust people." "I felt suspicious of everyone and everything," says Dalia, who to this day switches on the lights before she enters a dark room. "Anyone who did not smile was suddenly a suspect, your trust in people is completely gone and you can't behave in a normal way." Dalia says that following the robbery, her life turned into a nightmare - she and her husband were interrogated by the police, hassled by the insurance agency, had to spend hours filing paperwork and do continual stock-taking to decipher what had gone missing. "It was like we were suddenly the criminals," she says. "There was so much pressure and after a while we'd had enough of everything." She also says she felt very let down by the police, who took a long time in coming to take finger-prints and evidence from the crime scene and did not follow up with the family to let it know how the case was progressing. "After a while, you wonder whether the police are really doing enough, you wonder whether you should take the law into your own hands and seek out justice," says Dalia. Let down by the system, Dalia was surprised one day, a few months after the crime took place, to receive a phone call from a woman named Rivka. A social worker by trade, Rivka introduced herself as a "mediator." She explained to Dalia and her husband that the person who had robbed their store was requesting a chance to meet with them in person and offer an apology. She explained that it would be an opportunity for the couple to express their hurt and anger at the crime, to ask questions and to hopefully find a way to heal. "My husband was not really interested in meeting the guy who robbed us," says Dalia. "He said, 'What's the point, what would it bring?' But I was curious. I wanted to meet the man that had made me feel like this. I had some questions for him. I wanted to ask him why he did it, why he chose us?" DALIA had been invited to join Gefen (a Hebrew acronym for Mediation, Criminal, Victim: Gishur, Pogeiya, Nifg'a), the Ministry of Social Affairs-run victim-offender mediation program. Working together with the adult probation services, the program follows an international model of restorative justice, which aims to repair damages caused by a criminal act. Gefen was conceived in Israel in the mid-90s and eventually put into action in 2004. "The heart of the program is to arrange a meeting between the victim and criminal," explains Rivka Freiberg, also a trained social worker and one of the founders of the program. She now volunteers her services as a mediator and offers guidance to the newly trained mediator team. "The theory is not very complicated. It is simply about the criminal taking responsibility for his actions, a way for him to find empathy with his victim and a chance for him repair himself so that he can return to the community." Headed by Rachel Weinstain, another of the programs founders, Gefen is one of two official bodies in Israel that deals with restorative justice, though there are a handful of volunteers and non-government organizations that advocate similar work. Freiberg explains that their work falls somewhere between the criminal justice system, who puts forward felons attempting to reform themselves for the program, and the social welfare system, which offers a more therapeutic approach to finding a solution. The process is similar to classic models of mediation but whereas in mediation both sides are equal, in restorative justice it is extremely clear who is the criminal and who is the victim. "Jewish tradition is designed to forgive people," says Dalia, who was one of the first people to participate in the program in Israel. "There are the 10 days of 'Heshbon Nefesh' (soul searching) every year and we must always be prepared to do it. I thought that if he was ready to stand in front of me and ask for forgiveness, then he deserved forgiveness." When she finally did come face to face with him, Dalia says she was shocked. "He was the same age as my children and he was really a poor soul, I felt very sorry for him," she says. "He told me that his parents did not know he'd been involved in such a crime and that he was supposed to be getting married soon. He was petrified that his fianc s' parents would find out what had happened." "I did not want any financial compensation from him, I just made him promise that he would not do this again," continues Dalia. "I truly believe that he really meant to make amends because he had a woman waiting for him. He wanted to just erase that chapter from his life." "I thought that if the woman he was marrying was ready to forgive him and take a chance on him, then I had to try and forgive him too," she says. "I even told him to invite me to his wedding." RESTORATIVE justice dates back thousands of years, and the philosophies can be found in a variety of different cultures, in addition to Judaism. Freiberg explains that the modern-day practices were originally derived from the Maori culture and were first developed in New Zealand and Australia. In the US, the Victim Offender Mediation Association (VOMA) estimates that victim-offender mediation programs around the world have greatly increased since the 1980s. It attributes some of the increase in the past few years to growing media attention. The most well-known exposure came in 2004, when talk show host and celebrity Oprah Winfrey ran an article on restorative justice in her O magazine and not long after screened a one-hour TV special. In Israel, victim-offender mediation still has a long way to go. "We are pioneers," states Freiberg, citing official Gefen figures that since the program began two years ago until March 2006, it has dealt with 60 cases of restorative justice, not all of them resulting in the final meeting. In the last six months alone, however, Freiberg points out that there has been a sharp rise in the number of requests for meetings from offenders with their victims, bringing the total number of cases up to 80. "At the moment, the program has specific criteria," continues Freiberg. "We do not deal with sexual or violent crimes that have resulted in murder. Neither will we enter into any dispute within the family. We focus mainly on victims of violence or some kind of robbery, but we do hope to expand to these other areas in the future." And Israel's approach to the mediation is also slightly different to what is practiced in other countries, says Freiberg. "In England, there are many organizations aimed at helping the victim," she says. "They are designed to ease his pain, to give him an experience that will help mend his hurt and release himself from the all the trauma he's gone through. In Israel, there isn't really anything like that for victims, therefore we have to start with the offender who wants to make amends." "It is really a service for the offender, but we do put emphasis on showing sensitivity to the victim," adds Vicky Sherzman, director of the Jerusalem district for Gefen. "The courts assigns a probation officer to the offender and they decide whether that person is truly ready to make amends and go through our program." The criminal is then screened by social workers to determine if they are genuinely interested in seeking restitution or whether they will only cause further anguish to the victim, says Sherzman. She continues: "Once we have prepared the offender, we then contact the victim. The whole process is done with the final meeting in mind." Once both sides are prepped, a joint meeting is set up, says Sherzman. SHERZMAN goes on to tell the details of a recent Gefen case of a drug addict in Jerusalem who woke up one morning, needed money and decided to steal the bag of the first person that crossed his path. He knocked the woman to the ground and ran away but was caught by passers-by. The court assigned him to a probation officer and he managed to wean himself off the drugs. "That is where our story begins," says Sherzman. "He had been so addicted to the drugs, that he only saw the world in black and white and did not really care who he hurt to get what he wanted. He knew that he had taken a bag but had no idea who he had taken it from. During the process, we sat with him and asked him what he thought he had done to the women. We asked him if he had any ideas on how she might be feeling. He said he was sure that she was suffering but he did not know what else she might be going through." Sherzman then contacted the victim and asked if she would be willing to meet with the man who had stolen her bag. "At first she was shocked that someone had suddenly remembered her, that someone had called to ask how she was feeling," says Sherzman. "At our initial meeting, she told me how she had fallen very hard and had to stay at home for a month. Afterwards, she was petrified that she might see the man again, that he might come after because she had complained to the police. She had even sewn a pocket inside her clothes so she would not have to take a bag out with her." As for coming face to face with her attacker, Sherzman says the woman wanted to meet him, but was extremely nervous. "For many victims, the world really changes following a crime. Even after a year the victim stays with the fear and the trauma," she says. "And there are many questions that are left unanswered, such as why me, why did they break into my house?" At the meeting, the woman told her attacker what had happened to her after he'd knocked her to the ground. "He was in shock," describes Sherzman. "He said, 'in my mind, the story ended where you fell on the floor and that was it.' There were some very emotional moments and she had the chance to ask him why he had attacked her. The offender explained that it was not a personal thing but that she just happened to be the first person he saw." Many times, the meetings end with a contract being drawn up between the parties. Sherzman explains that the final contract could include anything from monetary reparations, to simple promises that the person will not behave in this way again, that they will not hurt anyone else. "There is something very moving about the process of seeing two people reach such an agreement," says Sherzman.

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