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Restorative justice places power in victims' hands

Geske

Janine P. Geske
Marquette Law School

When Lynn BeBeau’s husband was shot and killed in the line of duty 23 years ago, she viewed the subsequent legal process as an "injustice system." Although the man who killed her husband eventually wound up in prison, the process filled her with rage.

BeBeau’s husband — her high school sweetheart — was a police officer who was killed protecting a 15-year-old boy. The shooting took place while he was responding to a late-night domestic violence call and left her a widow with two children.

Her anger not only focused on the man who shot her husband, but on members of legal system who were supposed to bring the killer to justice. She recalled being treated like a thorn in the side of the district attorney handling the case. She expressed frustration at the prosecutor for making a plea agreement based on concerns about the cost and time required to take the case to trial.

BeBeau related her fear and rage at having to leave town for three weeks after the killer, who was not confined, called prior to his sentencing in an effort to induce her to ask for leniency.

Today, BeBeau promotes a victim-centered approach to justice with potential benefits for victims and offenders, called restorative justice.

Restorative justice is a philosophy that supports victims and communities as they deal with the aftermath of crime. In some cases, it brings victims and offenders together in a process that promotes healing for the victims and teaches offenders the consequences of their actions by showing them the effects their crimes had on the victims.

Marquette University Law School has launched a Restorative Justice Initiative in an effort to teach law students about this philosophy. The program also is designed to give students direct exposure to the process and to help build communication among the restorative justice programs throughout the state.

BeBeau spoke Thursday during an event to help launch Marquette’s new initiative. The program featured four victims of crime, who shared their experiences and related the benefits they had received by participating in different types of restorative justice programs.

The Restorative Justice Initiative is the creation of Prof. Janine P. Geske. During the past five years, Geske has been actively involved in victim-offender conferencing at the maximum security prison in Green Bay. It’s a process that she views as beneficial for the victims and the offenders.

BeBeau

Lynn BeBeau, whose husband was killed 23 years ago, tell how restorative justice programs help the victims of violent crimes.

"This initiative’s focus is supporting victims and communities through the healing process," Geske told the Wisconsin Law Journal. "Offenders are an essential ingredient of this. Part of this process is to have them take responsibility for what they have done and to work toward repairing the harm — whether that means (working) with the victim or the community in terms of their own rehabilitation."

Through victim-offender conferencing, Geske has brought victims of sexual assault or family members of murder victims together with the offenders in a carefully structured setting. The meeting has to be initiated by the victim and the Marquette law professor meets separately with each side in a screening and preparation process.

One essential element for any meeting is that the offender accepts responsibility for the criminal act. Without that, the process does not move forward. Victims are allowed to tell how the incident affected their lives and ask questions of the offender.

"From my own experience, when an offender really understands and hears from the victim about the harm and its ripple effect, they are much less likely to harm anyone else," Geske continued.

The restorative justice philosophy covers a variety of activities including the victim-offender conferencing. Community conferencing is another process where victims, offenders and community members meet to discuss the crimes and decide how offenders will make amends. Victim-impact panels are being used in drunken driving situations where victims speak to groups of repeat offenders rather than the individuals in their specific cases. Those are just a few of the activities that fall within the restorative justice spectrum.

David Lerman, of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, heads up the county’s community conferencing program. The program focuses primarily on property offenses and is funded by a state grant. The program has resulted in 190 community conferences taking place.

Lerman spoke Nov. 17 during another program designed to kick off Marquette’s Restorative Justice Initiative. He noted that restorative justice programs focus on helping the victim and community heal; however, one of the side benefits is the impact on recidivism rates.

A Legislative Audit Bureau report compared recidivism rates for 47 people who participated in Milwaukee County’s program from August 2002 through July 2003 with 52 nonparticipants. The review indicated that by February 2004 4.3 percent of the participants were charged with another crime compared with 13.5 percent of the nonparticipants. The review also indicated that within one year of participation only 8.8 percent of offenders with no prior convictions were arrested compared with 27.6 percent of the nonparticipant offenders.

Cheryl Stinski also spoke during the Nov. 17 program. Stinski is involved in the Fox Valley Community Restorative Justice Project. She noted that many of the victims who work with that p
rogram participate because they want to see something positive come out of the incident. One burglary victim said she would participate if meeting with the offender would "do some good."

Stinski acknowledged that restorative justice is not the whole answer to the problem of crime. But it can be used in conjunction with the other tools that are in place.
"Often, this is the only place where the victim has a voice," Stinski said.

Now, Geske hopes to teach others about the restorative justice philosophy. Marquette will be taking a three-pronged approach with its Restorative Justice Initiative.

First, the school will offer a course that looks at restorative justice and how it interfaces with the rest of the criminal justice system. Second, Geske has developed a clinical program that allows law students to be involved in victim-offender conferencing. Currently, she has half a dozen homicide and sexual assault cases where students are helping her.

Finally, Geske wants the program to facilitate communication between the various restorative justice programs throughout the state. She hopes to provide technical support to those programs and establish a training program for restorative justice.

Law School Dean Joseph Kearney and Marquette University Provost Madeline Wake told attendees at the Thursday night program that the Restorative Justice Initiative fits in well with Marquette’s philosophy.

"Our mission on a day-to-day basis is transformation — transforming students so they leave better students and better people," Wake said.

As for BeBeau, she came to a point where she realized the need to forgive everyone who she blamed for her husband’s death and the way things were handled; that included the killer, the district attorney, herself and God. She was supposed to have accompanied her husband that evening for a ride-along, but stayed home after her daughter became ill. One of the things that haunted her was how things might have turned out differently if she had been with her husband.

The man who killed BeBeau’s husband committed suicide while he was in prison. As a result, she was never able to meet with him in a victim-offender conference.

However, she has participated in other restorative justice efforts which she found beneficial.

"It’s life changing," BeBeau said.

Tony Anderson can be reached by email.

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