Program Goals/Target Population
The Indianapolis (Indiana) Family Group Conferencing Experiment, also known as the Indianapolis Restorative Justice Conference Project, was a restorative justice diversion program for young, first-time juvenile offenders. The goal was to break the cycle of offending before it reached the stage of repeat offending. The criteria used to determine eligibility for participation in the project required that a youth:
- Be no older than 14
- Be a first-time offender (that is, no prior adjudications)
- Have committed a nonserious, nonviolent offense
- Have no other pending charges
- Admit responsibility for the offense
The eligible charges included assault, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, shoplifting, and theft.
Family group conferencing is based on principles of restorative justice and draws on several criminological theories, including Braithwaite’s theory of reintegrative shaming (1989). Restorative justice practices differ from traditional court process in many ways. While traditional courts take an adversarial approach, key elements of restorative justice practices include community empowerment and participation as well as a meaningful focus on the victim (or victims) of the crime. Traditional courts are often criticized for ignoring the victim while determining a punishment for the offender that does not necessarily have anything to do with the crime.
Once the case was found to be eligible for a restorative justice family group conference, it was assigned to a conference coordinator who proceeded to contact the offender, his or her parent (or parents), and the victim (or victims) to assess the willingness of the parties to participate in a conference. A conference was then scheduled to bring every party to the incident together to discuss it.
The conference generally included not only the offender and victim but also a group of supporters. This typically involved parents/guardians, siblings, grandparents, other relatives, friends, and neighbors. But it may have also included teachers, athletic coaches, and other important figures in the youth’s life. During the conference, the coordinator guided the juvenile offender through a series of questions to decipher the events that led to the incident. Questions such as how the youth was involved, what the youth was thinking about at the time, and whom the youth thinks the offending behavior affected were intended to help the youth accept responsibility for the behavior. The questions also were designed to help the youth understand how the behavior has affected the victim, the families, and the community.
After everyone has had an opportunity to speak, the juvenile was asked if there is anything he or she would like to say to the victim. It was usually at this point that the juvenile would apologize to the victim and to the group. The group then began the process of agreeing to a plan that would allow the offender to repair the harm that was caused by the crime. This agreement may have included restitution, community service, or other elements to address the specifics of this case. The final agreement that outlines the group’s recommendations was prepared and signed by all the participants.