Community Conferencing: A Restorative Justice Practice

Introduction

In the discourse surrounding justice, traditional punitive models have long held sway. However, the field has increasingly opened up to transformative perspectives that emphasize healing, reconciliation, and the restoration of communal bonds. One such innovative approach is Community Conferencing, a participatory dialogue-based process that falls under the broader canopy of restorative justice. This comprehensive article delves into the conceptual foundations, historical lineage, and contemporary implications of Community Conferencing. This exploration is buttressed by the inclusion of a case study, as well as reference to seminal thought leaders in the domain.

Historical Context

Indigenous Foundations

Long before the advent of formal justice systems, indigenous communities around the world, such as the Maori in New Zealand and Native American tribes, had been practicing participatory methods of justice. These practices often involved the entire community and were aimed at repairing relationships rather than exacting punishment (Pranis, 2005).

Modern Adaptations

The modern incarnation of Community Conferencing was inspired by these indigenous justice systems, marking a distinct shift away from adversarial legal procedures toward collective decision-making. This new approach aspires to more fully capture the complexity and relational aspects of human conflict and wrongdoing.

This inclusive approach facilitates open dialogue, mutual understanding, and collaborative problem-solving, aiming to repair harm and restore relationships. The experience and structure of a community conference can be profoundly impactful, offering a unique blend of personal storytelling, collective empathy, and communal decision-making.

Pre-Conference Preparations

  1. Facilitator Training: Trained facilitators, skilled in restorative practices and conflict resolution, oversee the conference. Their role is to guide the conversation, ensuring a safe and respectful environment for all participants.
  2. Participant Engagement: Prior to the conference, facilitators meet with the affected parties to explain the process, assess their willingness to participate, and prepare them for the emotional nature of the dialogue.
  3. Agenda Setting: The facilitator sets a flexible agenda that allows for the expression of emotions, personal narratives, and the exploration of the incident’s broader community impact.

Conference Structure

  1. Opening Remarks: The conference begins with the facilitator establishing ground rules and reiterating the conference’s objectives: to understand the incident, address its impacts, and identify steps towards resolution and healing.
  2. Sharing Perspectives: Participants take turns sharing their experiences and perspectives related to the incident. This phase often involves the person(s) responsible for the harm, the victim(s), and possibly affected community members or supporters.
    • Victim’s Experience: Victims articulate the emotional, physical, and psychological impacts of the incident on their lives.
    • Offender’s Accountability: The individual(s) responsible for the harm have the opportunity to acknowledge their actions, express remorse, and share their side of the story.
  3. Dialogue and Deliberation: This phase encourages open dialogue among participants, allowing them to ask questions, express feelings, and clarify misunderstandings. The facilitator ensures that the conversation remains constructive and focused on healing.
  4. Agreement and Resolution: The conference culminates in the collaborative development of an action plan aimed at repairing the harm and preventing future incidents. This agreement might include apologies, restitution, community service, or other restorative actions agreed upon by the participants.
  5. Closing: The facilitator concludes the conference with a summary of the agreement and outlines the follow-up process to ensure the agreement’s implementation. Participants often express a sense of relief, closure, or even transformation following the conference.

Post-Conference Follow-Up

  1. Support and Monitoring: Facilitators or designated community members monitor the agreement’s implementation, providing support and mediation as needed.
  2. Evaluation and Feedback: Participants may be invited to provide feedback on the process to assess its effectiveness and identify areas for improvement.

Impact on Community and Participants

Community conferencing can have a profound impact on both individual participants and the broader community. It fosters empathy, mutual respect, and a shared sense of responsibility for maintaining community well-being. By involving community members in the resolution process, it strengthens communal bonds and promotes a culture of accountability and reconciliation.

Theoretical Frameworks

Reintegrative Shaming

One of the academic forerunners who has shaped the field of restorative justice, and by extension Community Conferencing, is John Braithwaite. His theory of “reintegrative shaming” proposes that engaging the offender’s community in the justice process can serve to shame the act but not the actor, thereby encouraging reintegration rather than stigmatization (Braithwaite, 1989).

Victim-Offender Reconciliation

Similarly, Howard Zehr, often regarded as the “grandfather of restorative justice,” advances the idea that justice should be more victim-oriented, focusing on their needs and ways to repair the harm done (Zehr, 2002).

Key Features

Inclusive Participation

At the heart of Community Conferencing is inclusivity. All parties affected by an offense, including the victim, the offender, and other stakeholders like family and community members, are invited to participate.

Facilitated Dialogue

A neutral facilitator guides the conversation, allowing each party to speak openly and honestly. This ensures that everyone’s perspective is heard and acknowledged.

Focus on Repair

Unlike punitive models that focus on meting out punishment, the central tenet of Community Conferencing is repair. This includes not only material repair but also the repair of relationships and communal harmony (Armour, 2013).

Case Study: Baltimore’s Community Conferencing Center

One exemplary case that underscores the effectiveness of Community Conferencing is the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Over a span of years, the center has facilitated dialogues between victims and offenders, resulting in a significantly lower rate of recidivism compared to conventional justice processes. Moreover, 98% of conferences reached a consensus plan for how the offender could repair the harm they had done (Beck, 2011).

Contemporary Insights

Scalability

Community Conferencing has proven its effectiveness across different settings, from schools to adult criminal justice systems. Researchers like Mark Umbreit have demonstrated its scalability and adaptability (Umbreit, 2001).

Virtual Conferencing

In an age of digital technology, virtual conferencing is becoming more common. However, this raises questions about the quality and impact of digital dialogues compared to face-to-face interactions (Daly, 2016).

Intersectionality

Donna Coker and other scholars are extending the conversation to examine how Community Conferencing can address intersectional aspects of justice, particularly related to race, gender, and socioeconomic status (Coker, 2002).

Thought Leaders

  • John Braithwaite: His theory of reintegrative shaming has been instrumental in shaping restorative justice.
  • Howard Zehr: A pioneer in the field, known for shifting the focus towards the victim’s needs.
  • Kay Pranis: Specializes in the use of peacemaking circles in restorative justice.
  • Marilyn Armour: Noted for her empirical research on restorative justice in educational settings.
  • Donna Coker: Pioneering work in the context of domestic violence and restorative justice.

Conclusion

Community Conferencing embodies a radical rethinking of justice, one that departs from hierarchical, punitive models to embrace a more communal, democratic ethos. Its power lies not merely in procedural reform but in an epistemological transformation—it beckons us to think differently about justice itself (Braithwaite, 2004; Pranis, 2005). It proposes a collective approach that transcends mere conflict resolution, venturing into the realm of collective wisdom and social transformation. The application of Community Conferencing is not just an alternative to traditional models; it is an act of “justice alchemy”—the transmutation of punitive paradigms into collaborative pathways toward social healing.