U prof’s mediation programhelps victims face offenders

by Christine Tomlinson

To get justice, go to the source.
Victims can do just that, thanks to a movement in criminal justice called victim-offender mediation.
University professor Mark Umbreit helped start the movement, which aids victims of burglary and other nonviolent crimes face their offenders. Now the teacher in the School of Social Work is spearheading an effort to make it possible for victims of violent crimes to face their offenders.
He will lead a training session for mediators in violent crimes at the Earle Brown Center on the St. Paul campus this weekend.
Through the program, Umbreit has helped a Minnesota couple meet the men who murdered their daughter, who was a student at the University.
“It’s a way of, number one, humanizing the processes, of allowing victims of crime to reconstruct their story of what happened in such a way that they can move on in life, get a greater sense of closure,” Umbreit said.
Umbreit, director for the Center for Restorative Justice at the University, said extending victim-offender mediation to violent crimes — first degree murder, attempted murder and sometimes sexual assault — is almost taboo.
Many people involved in victim advocacy organizations are skeptical of mediating cases of violent crime, he said. They maintain that the process is difficult and does little to reform the criminal justice system.
Almost all of the 125 victim-offender programs in the country deal exclusively with nonviolent crimes such as burglary and vandalism.
The mediation programs are gaining recognition. In 1994, the American Bar Association endorsed the programs. A United Nations task force is preparing a resolution supporting victim-offender mediation, and the U.S. Department of Justice met in January to discuss restorative justice.
Umbreit helped establish the first victim-offender mediation program in 1978 in Elkhardt, Ind. Now, he plans on taking a year-long sabbatical to conduct research on a program in Texas, the only one in the country that offers statewide mediation for victims of severe violence.
Umbreit said this type of mediation requires more sensitivity on the part of the advocate. “It requires far more advanced training in terms of understanding the issues that victims of severe violence are faced with,” he said.
Professor Jeffrey Edleson, director of the Higher Education Center Against Violence and Abuse at the University, said the possibility of re-victimization must be considered in cases of severe violence — especially domestic abuse.
That’s why the victim-offender program is voluntary for both the victim and the offender, and at the request of the victim, Umbreit said. “The movement of this field to work with crimes of severe violence has been driven almost exclusively by victims of crime,” he said.
Umbreit and others in the field had been approached at public presentations by victims and families of victims who wanted to talk to the offenders. That was how he got involved with the family of the former University student. With Umbreit present, the students’ parents have met several times with the inmates and their families. Currently, the family and Umbreit are working with the Canadian Film Board on a documentary of the process.
Umbreit said victim-offender mediation as a way of restorative justice is not a new concept. “At its best, it is tapping into the spiritual power that other indigenous populations particularly have always had, frequently had, as part of their natural ways of dealing with crime and conflict in communities,” he said.