By Linda Steiner
Imagine you see a woman on a street corner weeping, her torn purse on
the ground and two small children wailing beside her. You see a hooded
man sprinting away.
What would you do? Attend to the woman and her children or try to apprehend the man?
It’s human nature to want to help the victim first. And most people given this scenario respond that way.
But that’s not the way the criminal justice system works. There, the
focus is on the offender, with the majority of resources devoted to
court proceedings, jail, probation, parole, etc. The Community
Conferencing Program within the Milwaukee County Office of the District
Attorney believes that, for a number of reasons, the thought behind the
above scenario is a better way to go.
Community Conferencing is one example of the larger concept of
restorative justice, which operates in several different forms in about
300 programs around the nation and in Canada. The main idea behind all
of them is to bring together victims and offenders to tackle crime – and
healing – from another angle.
The goals include giving closure to victims by allowing them to face
the offenders, explain how crime has affected them and to have some say
in what ultimately happens as a result of the crime. Community
conferencing also allows offenders to own up to their crimes in a very
personal way, to realize the impact their wrongdoing has had on their
victims and, because community members are added to the mix, on society
“The criminal justice system asks what law was violated, by whom and
how do we punish the offender?” said Erin Katzfey, program manager of
Milwaukee’s Community Conferencing Program. “Restorative justice asks,
what harm was done, how can it be repaired, who’s responsible for the
repair, and what needs to be done to accomplish the repair?”
Three members of the Stritch community, history professor Sister
Justine Peter, OSF, Ph.D., and students Carolyn Espinoza and Margaret
Germanotta are involved in Milwaukee’s program. The two students have
done internships and all three have acted as co-facilitators in
community conferences. They all believe the program is an excellent
example of how Stritch’s Franciscan values of compassion, peacemaking
and creating a caring community can be carried out in very practical
“I liked the concept,” Espinoza, 53, a senior majoring in political
science, English and writing, said in explaining why she got involved.
“A person who commits a crime has the opportunity to repair the harm
they did to the community and also to receive another chance to be a
responsible member of society. That just appealed to me.”
It’s all about accountability, Katzfey said. Rather than focusing on
blame and guilt, restorative justice involves problem-solving,
obligations for the future and repairing.
“The emphasis is on dialogue and communication, rather than on
inflicting some kind of pain on the offender,” she said. “The goal is to
provide an opportunity for both the victim and offender to move
forward, and the community helps facilitate the process.”
How does it work? Cases that might be suitable for community
conferencing are referred by prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges,
victims-witness advocates, law enforcement personnel, probation
officers, the Public Defender’s Office, and even some victims. A
referral generates a review by David M. Lerman, the assistant district
attorney who heads the program, to determine if it is appropriate.
Lerman is one of two prosecutors in Wisconsin who do restorative justice
full time. The other is in Outagamie County.
Both victim and offender must agree to the process, which is used in
Milwaukee only with non-violent, non-drug-related crimes, mostly
misdemeanors. Offenders must accept responsibility for the act and
display some degree of remorse. Lerman also looks at their prior record
and their attitude about meeting with the victim.
Because of the above requirements, many referrals turn out to be
inappropriate for the program. Since May of 2000, when Milwaukee started
the Community Conferencing Program, Lerman has had about 230 referrals,
resulting in about 70 conferences. Those that have gone through the
conferencing process have had mostly positive results, he said.
“Studies have shown that victims are very satisfied and would
recommend the process to other victims, “ he said. “Recidivism also goes
down, and, when we look at cases where people re-offend, the crimes are
less likely to be more severe.”
As it is carried out in Milwaukee, community conferencing may occur
after an arrest but before the offender is formally charged with a
crime. Successful completion of the process may result in lesser or no
charges. Sometimes cases already have resulted in charges against the
offender, and a lesser sentence or no sentence at all may result.
Parties in a successful community conference produce a written
agreement, which is forwarded to the legal system. What ultimately
happens is up to a judge or the prosecutor’s office, but the system
usually responds favorably to offenders who own up to their crimes and
take steps to make amends with their victims and society, Katzfey said.
If an agreement is not completed, however, it will be a factor in
charging or sentencing, she said.
Lerman said there are several advantages to community conferencing.
In terms of time, this process usually occurs much closer to the crime
than if a case goes through the traditional legal system. Victims’
concerns are addressed in more detail as well as more quickly. Offenders
may get the tangible benefits of a lesser recommendation from the
prosecutor, a lesser sentence from a judge, or dismissal. And the
process helps clear cases from the regular judicial system, saving it
time and money.
One way cost savings are realized is through the use of lay people as
facilitators and co-facilitators. In terms of duties, the facilitator’s
key roles are to bring all the parties together in an agreed-upon
location, select community members to participate, and keep the
conference on track as it proceeds. In advance of the conferences, the
facilitator also must hold separate pre-conference meetings with the
victim and the offender to briefly go over the facts of the case, its
impacts, potential ideas for actions on repairing the harm, and general
ground rules for the conference (courteous behavior, no swearing,
whether family members will attend, etc.)
The co-facilitator helps guide the conference as it proceeds and
writes up the written agreement. Community members, who as much as
possible should reflect characteristics of the parties involved,
including race, gender, age, etc., ask questions and give suggestions as
to what to do to repair the wrong. The District Attorney’s Office
monitors compliance with the agreement.
“The facilitator provides guidance to the parties, but it is the
parties – victim, offender and community representatives – who really do
the work in reaching an agreement,” Lerman said.
Training for facilitators and co-facilitators includes two eight-hour
sessions. Facilitators must also act as a co-facilitator or community
member in at least two conferences before leading one. Periodic meetings
also are held for facilitators and co-facilitators to share successes
and concerns and exchange information, Lerman said.
“Listening, being non-judgmental, being able to sit back and observe
and guide are not necessarily easy things, and those are key
facilitators’ skills,” he said.
But when it works, it appears to be of great benefit to everyone involved.
At a recent community conference at which Carolyn Espinoza was the
co-facilitator, the victim was a large discount store chain, represented
by a loss-prevention manager. The offender, a former clerk, had taken a
cell phone and a phone card with a total worth of about $325.
Jack, not his real name, was very open about his theft and admitted
there was no reason for it. He didn’t need the phone. He already had
one. He did it because, in essence, everyone was doing it.
“As an employee, you know the security system,” he said. “I guess it was because it was kind of easy.
“I was just greedy,” Jack said. “That’s what makes it so hard. Now
I’m in this predicament, and I took something I didn’t even need!” he
said, clearly disgusted with himself. He told how the arrest and the
week he spent in jail had hurt his mother and other family members, who
now avoided the store because of the embarrassment.
The store representative explained that, although this particular
loss would not hurt the large chain greatly, the repetitiveness of such
crimes posed a real threat to a given store’s viability. Too much loss
can mean a shutdown, which greatly harms many people, including the
neighborhood in which it is located. The community members established
how important having such a store was to their neighborhood, expressed
concern about continued employee theft, and volunteered to get Jack
involved in community service projects at their churches. They suggested
Jack give the store representative details on how employees were
That’s when the victim’s representative got personal.
“I was an inner-city kid, and I got in trouble when I was 18,” he
said. “My dad was a cop, and the arresting officer didn’t process me. He
said ‘I’ll give you a second chance if you give someone else a second
“This is my way of giving someone else a second chance ... And when
you are in a position to change somebody’s life, will you do that?
That’s all I want, because this cycle has to stop.”
Jack looked the man straight in the eye and said: “You have my word.
And I will help you with anything you need to know, ’cuz you’re giving
me a second chance to live. You are really helping me out. And I really,
truly appreciate that.”
Jack ended up agreeing to restitution and 20 hours of community
service, and, at Espinoza’s suggestion, writing a letter of reflection
to include in the court file. Normally such a letter would go directly
to the victim.
“This is an opportunity for you to see on paper, in your own words,
how this impacted your life and what you would and would not do in the
future,” she told Jack.
In an interview after the conference, Espinoza explained why she
likes this program so much. She has participated in five or six
conferences and said she plans to continue with it regardless of what
she does after graduation from Stritch.
“The bottom line is that the offender gets a chance to become a
productive member of society by doing what they said they would do,” she
said. She noted how, in other conferences, deep-seated problems often
were unearthed by the intense talking involved, problems that
contributed to the crime but were not apparent on the surface. These are
the kinds of things that would have little chance of being brought to
the forefront in the normal criminal justice system, she said.
“It’s about caring and being part of the peacemaking process,” she said. “So the concept of a second chance is awesome.”
Simply throwing someone in jail just encloses them with people whose
ideas and lifestyles they don’t need to emulate, said Margaret
Germanotta, 24, a junior political science major.
“And that doesn’t restore any justice to the victim either,” she
said. “That’s one thing our system is not geared to. This directly
addresses the victim’s needs. ... And the community members can offer a
way out of where the offenders are headed.”
“I see so many people who would so benefit from this program,” said
Shannon Corallo, a lawyer with the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s
office who represented Jack in his community conference. She said she
was saddened by people in the criminal justice system who are unwilling
to participate and simply conclude that an offender must be a “bad
“This shows compassion, and I just think it’s wonderful,” she said.
In instructions to facilitators, Lerman and Katzfey acknowledge that
the program is “based upon principles that some people might consider to
be contrary to the goals of the criminal justice system” and that
“there are individuals who believe the conferencing process is not an
appropriate use of criminal justice resources.” They, therefore,
implore facilitators and co-facilitators not to hesitate to ask
questions, to seek help they may need from either of them, and to stress
integrity, professionalism and courtesy.
“Enjoy yourself,” they add. “We appreciate your continued commitment.
But nobody benefits if you, as a volunteer, are not enjoying yourself
or gaining satisfaction.”
Sister Justine, who has been involved in the Community Conferencing
Program for about two years, said her participation gives her immense
satisfaction. She said she supports the program because, in most
instances, she is simply not in favor of locking people up.
“People may say, ‘Oh, you bleeding heart,’ but I don’t think it’s an
effective way of dealing with criminals or crime. Yes, there are those
who are a threat to society and need to be removed. But when we see the
recidivism rate, we know it’s not working. So why do we keep
incarcerating people as the most standard way to deal with criminals? I
saw this as a way to get potential felons out of the system before they
ever get into it.”
She stressed that in community conferencing, the victim has to be “first and foremost.”
“I’ve been impressed by the willingness of victims to be the
forgivers – and sometimes when it was just not warranted!” As with life
in general, everything in community conferencing is not always rosy. And
the attitudes of offenders with whom she has dealt have run the gamut,
from very contrite to almost amoral.
“I did a road rage case,” Sister Justine said, “and I felt neither
party was sincere in admitting what happened. ... And I did a case where
a teenager took her mother’s car and crashed it, and, again, I felt
there was no sincerity.
“But you take the risk. You’re willing to do it for the sake of the ones who really will benefit from this.”
She then told the tale of a neighbors’ case in which a noise problem
in a duplex escalated into a broken window, the police being called,
potential violence, and great animosity between the adults involved.
Through the conference, it was discovered that the root of the problem
was really with the teenagers who lived there.
“One of the community members had a teenager and was able to feed
into this very authentically,” Sister Justine said. After-school
programs were arranged, one mother received parenting classes and job
training, and the situation was successfully diffused.
“It really is about peacemaking,” she said. “For most of the people
involved, you can see the change in attitude. On the part of the victim
it goes from maybe a real feisty anger to, during the course of
discussion, seeing that anger dissolve or be ameliorated. And the
offender often picks up from the victim a feeling of what they are going
through. You can just see it, with body language, with gestures.
“If we come at this from a Franciscan standpoint,” Sister Justine
said, “we’re looking at the power of forgiveness – of asking for
forgiveness. Those are very powerful movements one wouldn’t necessarily
see coming out of the legal process.
“I’m very happy to be associated with this,” she said. “Not
necessarily because you come out of every conference happy. You may come
out wondering, saddened, frustrated.
“But in the long run, you still have hope.”