Young people drawn into crime are often battling with fractured family and community relationships. NICRO's Lukas Muntingh and Anne Monaheng suggest that family group conferences are a potent 'diversion' option for young offenders, and likely to prevent re-offending.
When working with young people who commit crimes we must ask ourselves: What do we want to achieve with this person? Some might say that we want to punish him or her and teach him/her a lesson; he or she must pay. No matter how popular this view may be, it is set to fail. When working with young people who have committed a crime, our primary aim should be prevention. What do we do with this person so that they never commit another crime?
The National Institute of Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) believes that work with young offenders should be rooted in the restorative justice paradigm. That paradigm can be summarised as follows:
crime violates people and relationships;
justice aims to identify needs and obligations;
justice encourages dialogue and mutual agreement;
victims and offenders are given central roles;
justice is measured by the extent to which responsibilities are assumed, needs met and relationships healed.
Based on the above NICRO has developed five diversion programmes. Diversion happens when the criminal charges against a person are withdrawn – conditional upon that person attending a specified programme, doing community service or anything else that the prosecutor deems appropriate. The five NICRO diversion programmes are:
the Youth Empowerment Scheme;
Pre-trial Community Service;
the Journey; and
Family Group Conferences.
They all form part of the NICRO diversion options available to courts where NICRO is active. Last year NICRO worked with 5 600 young offenders through these programmes; 84 percent of those youth completed their programmes successfully. The majority of young offenders referred – 85 percent – were property offenders; 6 percent were referred for crimes against the person; and 9 percent for victimless offences. Seventy-four percent were males, 26 percent females. If there is one message that we want to convey it is that the young person must be accountable for what he or she did, and take responsibility to restore the balance. If the young offender walks out of court with a deferred sentence and the perception that nothing has happened, further crime has not been prevented. NICRO can help create the opportunity, but it is up to the young person to seize that opportunity and become part of the community again.
Family Group Conferences
Family Group Conferences (FGCs) are one of the highest-impact interventions. Originally developed as part of the criminal justice system in Australasia, the FGC is a joint decision-making process that brings together the victim, the offender and their families to redress the harm caused by the crime committed. In setting up various support structures, it aims to provide an opportunity for healing and a plan to avoid re-offending. African communities have traditionally used similar processes to deal with problems such as drought, war and domestic conflict. Typically, if a family member offended the community in some way, the whole family was shamed and ordered to pay for their member's actions or leave the village. Families took collective responsibility for each other. Remnants of this process still exist in some areas of South Africa. Similarly to victim-offender mediation, Family Group Conferences suggest that the offender needs to realise the impact of his or her action on the victim. He or she needs to participate in finding a way to repair the damage. Family Group Conferences acknowledge the need for the offender to go through this process with adequate support from his/her family.
FGCs aim to:
acknowledge the victim and give him/her an opportunity to express their feelings about what has happened;
acknowledge the offender's family as the primary guardians of the offender who should be given the chance to deal with the situation in their own 'family way';
give responsibility to the offender and involve him/her in finding a way to repair the damage done to the victim;
find a solution suitable to both offender and victim in a non-hostile situation;
provide a supportive and healing environment to the victim, the offender and to his/her family.
NICRO piloted its first FGC project in Pretoria in 1997 with the Interministerial Committee on Young People at Risk. During 1997-98, NICRO has reached 87 young people nationally through the FGC programme. Of these cases, 73 were referred by prosecutors and the rest were referred by schools, families, police and magistrates. Seventy-five percent have had a successful outcome.
The FGC process
Case selection is obviously important, and is therefore guided by the following criteria:
offenders must be between the ages of 14 and 18;
offences are generally some form of theft; possession of car-stealing equipment; possession of dagga; robbery; assault; or malicious damage to property;
there should be a basic admission of guilt by the offender.
The FGC referral process runs as follows:
When a crime has been committed and the police have made an arrest, they refer the matter to court.
At court the probation officer recommends an FGC to the prosecutor after assessing the young person.
If the prosecutor agrees to divert the case, and the FGC facilitator agrees that the young person is suited for FGC, the preparation for the FGC starts.
The facilitator or organiser contacts the victim, the offender's family or significant others, finds a venue and proceedings take place.
The FGC takes decisions and drafts a plan of action – with which the offender must comply.
The conference facilitator informs the court of the offender's compliance with the agreement and plan, and the prosecutor can now drop the charges.
Should the offender not comply with the agreement and plan, the FGC may sit again or the matter can be referred back to court. Based on the recommendation of the FGC facilitator, the prosecutor will decide to either prosecute or to refer the case back to the FGC.
Why FGCs work
The Family Group Conference gives the victim the opportunity to interact with the offender, ask questions, share his/her feelings and contribute to suggestions for redressing the situation. The formal criminal justice system does not acknowledge the victim as the primary stakeholder. Victims often take a back seat or become witnesses; their needs and feelings are not substantively addressed and they generally do not make suggestions about the offender's fate or their own restitution. There is little opportunity for healing the wounds caused by the crime committed, largely because victim and offender don't speak to each other.
Bringing the victim's and offender's families into the picture helps clarify 'where they are coming from'. Families have unparalleled strengths to deal with their youth-in-trouble, but in many cases have relinquished their power. FGCs aim to give the power back to families so that they can play their rightful role in supporting their children. When a family member is involved in criminal activity, the entire family is affected. Their reputation and dignity are at stake. It is logical to bring them into the process of restoring justice between the victim's family and their own. Facing the victim can be daunting for the offender, and family support is critical.
'Family' needn't be taken literally: it can involve people who are not blood relatives but who mean a lot to the offender, such as a friend, teacher or community leader. The involvement of these 'supporting others' helps reassure the victim that reparation will be sought. Directly involving the offender in a decision-making process enhances his/her commitment to repairing the damage done. In the FGC the offender meets the victim for the first time (or the first time since the offence was committed) and begins to understand the impact of the offence on the victim. The offender is engaged in a process of taking responsibility. The FGC seeks to find a solution that will fit the crime committed and satisfy the victim. This process also ensures that the offender is committed to the decision taken and therefore will ensure that he or she fulfils the FGC's expectations. The family, too, makes the commitment to ensure that their 'child' fulfils the FGC's requirements.
In sum, the plan of action taken by the group should encompass the following principles:
address the needs of the victim;
make the offender take responsibility for his/her actions;
fit the crime;
consider the physical and emotional abilities of the offender to carry out the plan;
have a time limit;
aim to minimise the chances of re-offending.
The FGC plan should be 'customised' and acceptable to all parties concerned. Often a verbal apology is sufficient, but monetary restitution or community service is not uncommon. FGCs are inclusive and ask all role-players for an input that will not only restore the rights and position of the victim, but will also pre-empt the offender's return to crime.
This feature reprinted from Track Two, a publication of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town.