Silence, tears and talking are key features of the restorative justice process where offenders and their victims come face to face to talk about the crime.

The voluntary process is an opportunity for victims to tell offenders about how the crime has affected them, how it could be put right and ask questions about what happened. Offenders can take responsibility for their offending, apologise to the victim and decide how to put right the harm they have caused.

Restorative justice (RJ) comes into the mix after an offender enters a guilty plea or is found guilty and before they are sentenced. A judge decides if RJ should be explored and, if it goes ahead, a report on the RJ conference is provided to the court and may be taken into account by the judge in sentencing.

RJ services are run by community-based groups contracted by the Ministry of Justice.

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In Whanganui, that group is Restorative Justice Whanganui whose small team of staff is led by co-ordinator and facilitator Sue Anderson. She has been involved with RJ since 2006.

Facilitators Rere Sutherland and David Curry, based in Whanganui, are nationally accredited RJ facilitators and Ruth Sandiford Phelan, who works in Taumarunui, has almost completed the rigorous accreditation process.

Administrator Kristie Matson is "the glue that sticks this whole thing together", Anderson said.

Restorative Justice Whanganui also covers Marton, Bulls, Taihape, Levin, Ohakune, Raetihi and Taumarunui, with the facilitators working closely with Whānau Ora groups.

The organisation has more than 30 volunteers from around the region who provide community input into RJ conferences.

"They play a very important part in our restorative process," Anderson said.

"They provide a community perspective. The group is very representative of the community."

There is a process to go through before getting to a conference, with a referral from the court prompting a cold call to the parties.

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"We have to tell them what it's all about and a lot depends on them, about how they feel and how open they are to meeting the other party," Curry said.

Anderson said it is more difficult to get the victims to attend and only about a third of referrals get to the conference stage.

"Victims don't want to because they don't want to be identified or it's been a long time since the offending or sometimes it's just still too raw," Anderson said.

"We encourage them to understand how it can benefit them," Sutherland said.

Facilitators hold separate pre-conference assessments with victims and offenders.

"If we have 350 referrals a year, we will interview about 700 people but some offenders have more than one victim," Anderson said.

"Sometimes we need several pre-conference interviews with victims and offenders.

"We have the pre-conference briefing to see if people are comfortable and want to go ahead with the conference.

"The victim can talk about what's occurred before they make a decision to go ahead. By the time they get to the conference, they have had that talk. It makes it easier for them when they get to the conference and there are no surprises."

It can be a challenge for victims who haven't had anything to do with the prison before, having to go there for a conference.

Anderson says victims often feel they have a weight off their shoulders after the pre-conference discussion.

The organisation works with offenders on remand at Whanganui Prison.

"It can be a challenge for victims who haven't had anything to do with the prison before, having to go there for a conference," Anderson said.

Organising conferences at the prison are a particular challenge for Matson, with only a limited number of opportunities to meet at the prison and having to work around the victim's commitments.

"Sometimes the victim lives in another area so there's a lot of juggling to connect everyone and sometimes it's through AVL [audiovisual link]," Sutherland said.

For offenders on electronically monitored bail, Matson has to liaise with the monitoring company to ensure they can attend a conference.

Participants in a conference put a huge amount of trust in the facilitator, someone they have never met before.

"It's important work," Sutherland said.

"Confidentiality is really important to have that trust with people.

"Even with the offenders, I'm impressed they appreciate the support they get and they understand the process and that they have impacted on someone's life."

For both parties, it is reassuring to know there is someone willing to listen without judgment.

"It's important to be able to stay neutral," Sutherland said.

"Speaking for myself, I have automatic responses to what I'm reading [in documents from the court] but it's important to put that aside and listen."

People were often concerned about being emotional at the conference, Sutherland said.

"I always say it's 'silence, tears and talking'," Anderson said.

"Often it's emotional hurt that particularly our victims are feeling. Bruises go, the physical stuff gets better but what's happening in the emotional part of offending can be challenging for people."

Whanganui is the first city in New Zealand to work towards a Restorative City.
Whanganui is the first city in New Zealand to work towards a Restorative City.

Curry says the facilitators deal with a wide range of cases, from drunks smashing letterboxes to people who have stolen tens of thousands of dollars to incidents involving violence.

"Cases involving accidental death are pretty sad and difficult for all concerned," Curry said.

"A good proportion of our work arises from people drinking too much and drugs. A lot of things people are in court for you might consider to be minor. It changes their lives by doing something stupid. A lot of people acknowledge they made a mistake when drunk or high. If they have a conviction, it affects what they can do for the rest of their lives."

The facilitators deal with a lot of road accident cases. While some are premeditated, others are "just mistakes and we all know how easy it is to do that", Curry said.

"It's putting yourself in the shoes of the other person," Curry said.

"We sometimes see the victims and offenders become friends. It's about having generosity of spirit. It's a positive process."

When there is unintentional harm, the restorative meeting is important for all parties, Anderson said.

Restorative Justice Whanganui has been involved in several WorkSafe accident cases.

"That's unintentional harm," Anderson said.

"They know one another and one another's families. That's an important piece of work."

Family violence conference facilitators must undergo specific training, with Anderson the only member of the Whanganui team accredited for family violence conferences.

"Drugs or alcohol usually trigger family violence but under that is trauma from something in the past," Anderson said.

"We work with other services to ensure the person will get some help with that underlying trauma.

"Restorative justice is not a soft option."

The process is "very much about relationships", Anderson said.

"It comes down to the people involved - the victims in particular but the offenders as well," Curry said.

"It's the dealing with people that makes it worthwhile for us. We can help them make changes in their lives. We're getting people to talk to someone who they wouldn't, without our help, talk to."

Some victims have questions around what happened and why. For example, if there has been a burglary, they may want to know what the offender's movements were in their home "and there's only one person who can answer that".

The facilitators encourage the victims to ask questions.

"Sometimes at the end they [victims and offenders] hug or kiss," Curry said.

"It's a human thing. People understand we all make mistakes. Sometimes it's just that someone has been dumb that day."

Sutherland says an apology is an important aspect of the conference.

"A lot of offenders don't know how to apologise. We work with them at the pre-conference to help them think about how to make their apology."

Curry said a lot of offenders don't think about the impact on families and friends of their victims and find it hard to put themselves in their shoes.

"We encourage empathy," Anderson said.

"We explain things in a simple way and give examples."

Curry says the facilitators meet "some fantastic people", both offenders and victims.

"You can be inspired by their approach to life," he said.

"Not everyone is a deadbeat."

Twenty restorative justice facilitators and managers from lower North Island regions gathered for a seminar in Whanganui in May 2017.
Twenty restorative justice facilitators and managers from lower North Island regions gathered for a seminar in Whanganui in May 2017.