Forty years of research into victim-offender mediation (“VOM”) have found that the process provides a number of benefits to victims, offenders, courts and the community, according to Toran Hansen and Mark Umbreit. Their article, “State of knowledge: Four decades of victim-offender mediation research and practice: The evidence” (Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Fall 2018), discusses the research conducted since the first victim-offender mediation program was established in 1974 and points to research that now needs to be done.
Studies cited by Hansen and Umbreit found that victims who participate in VOM as compared to those who went through the traditional litigation process received more restitution, had less fear of re-victimization and were less likely to remain upset after the process. Other research found that participation in VOM led victims to feel empowered and to have a more humanized view of the offender.
A high percentage of victims were satisfied with their experience with VOM and the outcome. A few studies also looked at what led victims to like or dislike VOM. In one study, satisfaction was linked to three variables: whether the victim felt good about the mediator, whether the victim saw the restitution agreement as fair, and whether the victim had a strong desire pre-mediation to meet with the offender.
Another study found that victims were disappointed with their experience if they received an insincere apology from the offender, felt pressure to accept an apology or agreement, had their emotions stifled by the mediator, felt rushed into an agreement by the process or were not adequately prepared for the process. Hansen and Umbreit noted that these could be ameliorated by proper in-person preparation of the victim and offender, a non-directive mediation style, taking time to discuss difficult topics and process emotions and being sensitive to how victims experience the mediation so that they don’t feel revictimized by the process.
Offenders were also found to receive benefits from the VOM process. These included being more empathetic toward victims of their crimes, being held directly accountable to victims , being able to deal with their feelings and seeing victims change their feelings toward them, feeling empowered, and avoiding jail or court. Additionally, according to some studies, offenders found VOM to be a more satisfying and fairer than the traditional process.
However, not all the findings were positive. Offenders didn’t always know the process was voluntary and didn’t always understand the mediation process. Some felt pressured to approve an agreement they didn’t agree with and they sometimes felt that victims dominated the conversation. Again, the authors provided ways to address these issues. The mediators should pay attention to power dynamics and speech patterns during mediation. They should ensure that the needs of both the victim and offender are discussed in mediation, and make sure that all participants are aware that final agreements are made by consensus.
Other benefits accrue to the courts and community. Some studies found that VOM led to a higher rate of agreement completion than the traditional process. Many studies, but not all, found that VOM led to a lower recidivism rate than the traditional process. A few studies also found VOM to be cost-effective. Short-term, VOM lowers costs by being less expensive than the traditional court process. Long-term, lowered recidivism and lower incarceration rates lead to cost savings. One study found as well that mature programs were more cost-effective than those that were just started up, and another found that those involving community mediation centers were more cost-effective.
Hansen and Umbreit end by calling for a new generation of research. Older research needs to be replicated and new research is needed to better understand the effects of VOM by race/ethnicity and age, as well as the circumstances under which it works best.