As a researcher in the field of victim/offender mediation, Marilyn Armour walks in painful territory.
Her passion is restorative justice, her work a balancing act.
“Restorative justice brings together victims and offenders to assist victim healing and offender accountability. By its very nature, it is touchy business,” said Armour, assistant professor of social work.
Across the country, in increasing numbers, victims of violent crimes are asking for face-to-face meetings with offenders who have hurt them or their families. Texas has one of the country’s oldest restorative justice programs, which began in 1992 with a mother’s request to face her daughter’s murderer.
A former family therapist, Dr. Marilyn Armour knows a lot about carrying around pain and vengeance and the power of dialogue and forgiveness. She has led the crusade to introduce restorative justice into the School of Social Work through lectures, training workshops, research and a new course next spring.
“Restorative justice sees crimes as creating wounds that need to be addressed by holding the offender directly accountable to the people they have harmed,” Armour said.
Part of any work in this area involves bearing witness to victims of serious and violent crimes as they open their hearts to share personal stories of despair and suffering. On the other side, restorative justice encourages offenders to accept responsibility for their actions through mediation, restitution to victims and restorative measures to the community.
Making meaning out of crimes like murder has been part of Armour’s life for 30 years. She has led the crusade to introduce restorative justice into the School of Social Work through lectures, training workshops, research and an upcoming new course next spring.
“It is a perfect match for the social work profession,” said Armour.
Restorative justice, which has its roots in Native American and Aboriginal cultures, is a relatively new program that has moved from lesser crimes to cases of severe violence. In the United States, it grew from the victim’s rights movements of the 1970s. There is talk now of expanding the premise of mediation/dialogue to domestic violence and sexual assault cases.
For crimes of severe violence, the push for meeting with the offender must come from the victim, and the process will not go forward if the offender is not taking responsibility for the crime. Victim/offender mediations are sometimes planned for years before they actually take place.
“Victims and family members of victims want answers to questions that have been haunting them—that only the offender can answer,” Armour said. “Some want to know exactly what happened.”
For example, in murder cases, family members can start obsessing about what they think happened, what were their loved one’s last words and other details, she said.
“When people have horrible things happen to them, they end up trying to make sense of it.”
Armour knows a lot about carrying around pain and vengeance and the power of dialogue and forgiveness. A former family therapist, she learned quickly the importance of healing. Research led her to family members of violent crime victims and how they are victims as well.
“You can allow anger to eat you up or do something about it,” she said.
Many victims and family members feel that they do not have any rights, Armour said. “The U.S. legal system treats murder as a crime against the state rather than a crime against the victim’s family. Family members are usually just relegated to the role of witness.”
Restorative justice dialogue allows for but does not actually promote the possibility for forgiveness—but only if the victim voluntarily chooses that path, she said.
In this regard, forgiveness can release the victim from the negative power of the crime and potentially contribute to the victim’s mental and physical health. It can help raise the offender back to the status of a human being and facilitate the offender’s reintegration into the community, Armour pointed out.
“Forgiveness, however, does not mean that victims excuse what the offender did,” she said.
“Victims don’t want offenders just to say they are sorry,” Armour said. “Victims want action. They want offenders to go out and become valued members of society.”
Trying to reduce recidivism or repeat incarcerations is another aspect of restorative justice programs. Within three years of ending a prison term, nearly half of all former inmates in the country find themselves back in prison. This is a bleak statistic, said Armour.
“Our criminal justice system today is based on the belief, ‘If I punish you enough—it will deter you from doing another crime.’ This is flawed and doesn’t work,” she said.
Research on the use of restorative justice for lesser crimes has shown that offenders often have lower recidivism rates compared with those who do not meet with the victims.
Armour has worked closely with Ellen Halbert of the Travis County District Attorney’s office. Nearly 20 years ago, Halbert was raped, beaten, repeatedly stabbed and left for dead by a drifter—dressed in a black Ninja outfit—who broke into her home. She left her job as an Austin real estate broker and dedicated her life to victim services.
Halbert has served as vice chair of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees the massive criminal justice system for the State of Texas and is the first victim to have a prison unit named after her.
“The No. 1 thing victims want is for what happened to them not to happen to anyone else,” she said. “Through restorative justice programs, victims have discovered that their voices and their stories can change the lives of offenders from criminals to law-abiding members of our community.
“Can you imagine how that feels? It is the best example I know of the power of the victim’s voice,” Halbert said.
“No matter how great restorative justice is, it isn’t for every victim,” she said. “Some victims will never embrace this process, and we need to respect those who feel that way.
“I believe these victims don’t want to let go of the rage and pain they feel because it is the way they honor a loved one who has died,” Halbert said. “Somewhere deep inside, they believe if they let go of those feelings, it would somehow send the message that the loss they suffered wasn’t that bad or it would dishonor their loved one.”
“Ellen is a national leader in terms of representing victims and the importance of the victim's voice,” said Armour. “She has been very helpful in introducing me to restorative justice programs in Texas.”
Armour has conducted research on two restorative justice programs: the Victim/Offender Mediated Dialogue program offered by Victim Services of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Bridges to Life program. The Victim/Offender program is limited to offenders of serious crimes who are usually incarcerated for long periods of time or are on death role.
Bridges to Life is offered to inmates who are close to being released from prison or jail. These inmates meet weekly in small groups with crime victims who are not the actual victims of their crimes. Halbert is a member of the Bridges to Life board.
“The purpose of my research is to look at psychological and behavioral changes in participants who engage in these groups or in face-to-face mediated dialogues in violent offenses,” Armour said.
She and other researchers have found that mediation dialogue programs have a profound effect on many victims, family members and offenders who participate. Life changes reported include letting go of hate, obtaining answers, placing anger where it belongs and remorse on the part of the offender.
“Studies show that for many victims of serious crimes like murder or rape, little changes over time, said Armour, adding that there is still a lot of mental distress even after getting counseling or attending support groups.
“Restorative justice offers another path,” she said. “Restorative justice, however, is just one option. It’s not for everyone.”
There has not been enough research, she said, to document the benefits of victim/offender mediation programs and, consequently, many are considered too alternative to be used nationwide. Armour believes her research findings on how they are actually working will give programs more credibility.
“Restorative justice definitely has its critics,” she said. Some of the criticism includes the lack of research on restorative justice initiatives in more serious crimes, questions about offender participation motivation and sincerity and the belief that in some instances victims are revictimized because of lack of preparation prior to the mediation or the attitude projected by the offender who may have been mandated to attend against his will.
Graduate student Liliane Windsor has worked with the Bridges to Life program, going into prisons and participating in the groups that bring victims and offenders together.
There also is criticism that, although the criminal justice system has a disproportionate number of persons of color, restorative justice is primarily serving Caucasians. The program also has been criticized as inappropriate for domestic violence because it potentially sets the victim up for further abuse.
Christina Wade, a social work graduate student, has been very involved with Armour’s research projects. She believes variations of the restorative justice movement will become more widely used. “The program is important because it allows community, victims and offenders to actively work together in the rehabilitation process,” she said.
Victim/offender mediation also is controversial because there are many stakeholders involved who are at risk for a negative experience, said Wade. “Some scholars have criticized victim/offender mediation in lesser crimes because they believe it is cruel and unnecessary to ask victims to relive the crime to help an offender.
“However, I believe that if victims, with the help of a facilitator, are willing to help offenders understand that his or her actions have human consequences, this is the most efficient way to repair the pain and suffering caused by crime,” Wade said.
Another student, Liliane Windsor, has worked with the Bridges to Life program, going into prisons and participating in the groups that bring victims and offenders together.
“Violent crimes can happen to anyone at anytime,” said Windsor, who is working on her Ph.D. “I’ve listened to many victims’ stories and realized I had to somehow help reduce the violence in the world.”
Restorative justice operates on the belief that offenders can be rehabilitated and re-enter society as productive citizens, said Windsor. It also, she said, gives justice back to the victims by involving them in the process.
“I truly believe in the power of restorative justice because I have seen it work,” said Windsor. “I know acceptance of it has grown, but we have a long way to go.”