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mediation.Mark S. Umbreit is the Director of the Center for Restorative Justice & Mediation, School of Social Work
Currently in the U.K., only a small percentage of cases referred to victim offender mediation programs result in a face-to-face meeting. Cultural issues related to styles of communication (i.e. openness towards public expression of feelings) are likely to account for fewer direct mediations. In addition, there are questions about the effects of adult vs. juvenile programs, strangers vs. prior relationships, serious vs. minor crimes, diversion vs. post-sentence (for example some would maintain that encouraging a face to face meeting between an adult offender involved in a serious crime and the victim is far more difficult than encouraging a meeting with a juvenile offender of a minor offense in a diversion program). Another factor which merits discussion is the manner in which the mediation program is presented to the victim and offender, which does not focus as fully on the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the other party. Rather, the programs tend to initiate the indirect mediation process by sharing information, determining needs and exploring the possibility of a reparation agreement without initially offering the option of a direct mediation. After the indirect mediation process has occurred, the option of direct mediation is then only subsequently presented. By this time, many needs are met and most victims and offenders do not express an interest in meeting each other. Masters (1997) suggests that there may be a "closure risk"; victims seem to gain a high level of closure from just meeting with and receiving information from the mediator. While a recent study of mediation in England (Umbreit & Roberts, 1996) found a high level of satisfaction with indirect mediation, a somewhat higher level of satisfaction was expressed by those involved in direct mediation.
Programs in Europe could learn from the North American experience with direct mediation. European programs might consider first offering the option of a face-to-face meeting, pointing out the potential benefits and risks, and only then offering indirect mediation once it is clear that one or both parties do not want direct mediation.
One could certainly ask why such a major emphasis should be placed on direct mediation. After all, if people choose indirect mediation why not simply leave it at that? Research, however, has consistently shown that the major value of restorative justice and the mediation process is that of humanizing the experience of criminal justice, for both victim and offender. The process of meeting each other and entering into a dialogue about the crime and its affect on both parties has been found to lead to a greater experience of satisfaction and perception of fairness, less fear for victims and more understanding by offenders of the full impact of their behavior. For these reasons, a strong case could be made, especially in North America, that the option of direct mediation should first be offered, emphasizing both potential benefits and risks, and then offering indirect mediation when it becomes clear that direct mediation is not of interest to the involved parties. However, given the evolution of practice of practice in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe towards using more indirect mediation, a case could also be made for initially offering both options (along with their potential benefits and limitations) and allowing the participants to choose. In either case, the most important factor is be sensitive to adapting the mediation process as much as possible to the needs of the participants, rather than the needs of a "one size fits all" model.
NOTE: A special thanks is owed to Annie Roberts (Co-Principal Investigator with the English study of VOM), Jean Wynne, Coordinator at the Leeds Mediation and Reparation Service, and Barbara Tudor, Director at the Coventry Reparation Scheme. Without their continued support and assistance, the study of these two victim offender mediation programs in England could not have occurred.
University of Minnesota.