A young police officer stated: “I got so frustrated at young offenders laughing at me; I knew there had to be a better way or I was getting out of the justice business.” Heads nodded around the group, although perhaps from different perspectives.Heads around the room continued to nod as we recounted horror stories of the frustrations of working with youth in trouble with their schools or with the law. A group of us, youth advocates, teachers, aboriginal counselors, chaplains and police officers gathered to share our stories about doing justice with young people, and to learn a new tool: Family Group Conferencing.
As the day wore on, what became clear was that the present criminal justice system had lost the respect not only of victims and their advocates, but also of the professionals who worked in the system. All of us were looking for an alternative, a better way to do justice among youth. The tool we learned that weekend changed the way we thought about justice and gave some of us hope that there were positive alternatives that could bring about better outcomes for youth at risk.
The Family Group Conference originated among the Maori people of New Zealand. When an offence took place in their traditional communities, village elders would gather all those affected by the crime, both offender and victim and their families to hear one another speak, and bring about a resolution. They thought it ‘barbaric’ when the British authorities would take offenders away to courts and prisons rather than have them deal with their victims within the community. In recent years the Family Group Conference, modeled on the traditional Maori circles, has become a popular and effective way to deal with offences.
Conferencing is now standard practice in many classes of crime among young people in both New Zealand and Australia. Canada’s new Youth Justice Act acknowledges the effectiveness of conferencing in recognizing it as one of the possible alternatives for Young Offenders under the new Act.
Conferencing is not just effective for criminal justice. Many schools, colleges and universities have incorporated family (or peer) group conferences into their discipline policies as an effective way to deal with discipline issues.
The implementation of restorative practices in several Minnesota public schools has improved student behaviour and created more collaborative school cultures, according to a three-year evaluation. In one school, yearly referrals to the office for acts of physical aggression dropped from 773 to 153 in the same time period.
Brock students and others in the community can learn more about Family Group Conferences and other Restorative Practices at a course I am giving through continuing education. Every Monday evening in February we will take a look at some of these new practices and offer some hands-on training.