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Belgian Criminals Try to Make Amends

Nicola Fell (ziw)August 19, 2004

A new concept in criminal justice -- bringing together victims and their offenders -- is taking hold in Europe. Victims say it helps them find closure, experts hope it will put off repeat offenders.

Restorative justice brings victims and criminals togetherImage: Bilderbox

Though the idea may seem unimaginable to some, at an increasing number of European prisons, victims are meeting their offenders. The encounters are part of a growing movement in the social justice system called restorative justice. The process seeks to heel wounds by allowing victims to discuss the crime and its aftermath with their offenders and giving criminals a chance to make amends.

Having started in the United States in the 1970s, the idea is taking root in Europe. Since 2000, Belgium's progressive legal system has integrated restorative justice programs into the structure of every Belgian prison. As a result its success, pilot schemes have been implemented in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.

On a practical level, restorative justice means victims can confront their offenders and vice versa -- if both parties agree to do so. With a mediator always present, they can opt for a face to face meeting or seek contact through letters. The coordinators of the program in Belgium hope the process will change prison culture and the way offenders and victims think about crime.

Taking the first steps towards healing

John is in Leuven prison in Belgium for serial rape. He decided he wanted to start mediation with his victims as part of Belgian’s new restorative justice scheme, but he was not entirely prepared for the way it would make him feel. After he heard from a mediator how one of his victims felt, he began to have panic attacks.

"She told me about the emotions of my victim, which was very overwhelming," he told DW-RADIO. "I had a kind of hyperventilation because I couldn’t deal with what I had done. It was the first time I was confronted with the harm I had caused, and it’s something I have to deal with."

'Elaina' was the only one of the three of John’s victims to agree to mediation. She feels that her recovery has been helped by understanding her attacker.

"I asked him to write a letter to me and it was full of 'I' this and 'I' that," she said. "I marked all the 'I' bits and sent it back and said 'you are a selfish person.' He was very angry with that. Through mediation you learn a lot about the person and you catch the weak points. The moment I heard he was scared was the point I felt totally comfortable, because psychologically I felt very strong.”

Changing the system

Ivo Aertsen from Leuven University is one of Belgian’s pioneering academics in the field. He is convinced that restorative justice will change the way we view justice in western society.

Aertsen contends that the criminal justice system is too heavily focused on the offender -- on collecting evidence, prosecuting and sentencing. In his opinion, it's all about the offender, while the victim -- to whom the system also has a responsibility -- is forgotten. Through restorative justice, victims can find answers and a sense of closure. "We should believe in the capacity of victims and offenders to talk to each other," Aertsen said.

He pointed to the Dutroux case in Belgium as an example. One of the fathers told a journalist what was most important for him: He wanted to know what really happened to his daughter in the very last moments before she was killed. "These are very fundamental questions that are a way to cope with the trauma, and for these questions victims often don’t find sufficient answers at the trial," Aertsen said.

The process also has an affect on the offender. "I do believe that mediation is an eye opener," Kristel Butinx, the restorative justice mediator between John and Elaina, said. "I once had mediation with guy who wanted to conduct a robbery but needed a car, so he went hitch-hiking, stopped some guy and killed him. The mediation with the victim's father was very difficult for him because he saw all the pain. The father told stories about how his son lived and all about his hobbies so the offender would understand that he had killed not just something, but somebody."

Some skeptical of criminal's motives

Belgium is the first country in Europe to have restorative justice schemes running in every prison, and the feedback from participants has been mostly positive. Nonetheless, Hilde Guffens, a restorative justice coordinator for the Flanders region, has had to address fears from victim support groups who worry offenders are only participating to reduce their sentence.

"If an offender wants to have a mediation with his victim, it’s not something people think is normal," she said. "They always ask what he has to gain from it."

According to Guffens, the offender does stand to gain, and it’s important to be realistic and clear about that -- to show it to the victim and leave the decision up to them.

As for whether or not such programs help to reduce re-offending -- the project is too new in Belgium to draw any conclusions. In the case of John, he hopes mediation has helped him understand why he did what he did and will stop him from offending again.

"I have done something very wrong and I take responsibility," he said. "I was not convinced (about mediation) in the beginning. I was just doing it for Elaina and not for my own sake. But now I am convinced that it has helped me. For one thing, I am sure I will never want to harm someone like that again."