Introduction to Restorative Conferencing

Unlike mediation, which arose in the United States primarily as a response to court inefficiencies and racial unrest, restorative conferencing resulted from implementing indigenous practices in New Zealand’s youth justice system, and didn’t spread to the United States until the early 1990’s.

A restorative conference is a structured meeting between victims, offenders, and both parties’ family and friends, in which they discuss the consequences of a crime and decide together how to address the wrongdoing.79 It is managed by a facilitator who contacts both parties after an offense, arranges the conference, and facilitates the parties through each stage. Towards the end of the conference, the parties sign a restorative contract, an agreement that outlines specific things the offender will do to repair the harm caused.

There are three primary restorative conferencing models, including Family Group Conferencing, the Wagga Wagga model, and the Real Justice model, which differ slightly from each other. The Family Group Conferencing model, developed in New Zealand after the Maori “wahanau,” or family conference, invites the families to make the decision about how to deal with the offense separate from the facilitator. In the Wagga Wagga model, developed by the Wagga Wagga Police Service in Australia, a public official, such as a police officer, facilitates the conference and is present for the agreement discussion. The Real Justice model, named after the Pennsylvania nonprofit that pioneered it, is a modified Wagga Wagga model that includes specific restorative principles and a specific script to get the victim, offender, and other participants to understand and repair the harm caused.

Conferencing represents a promising solution for more serious crimes than community mediation usually addresses, and is often shown to reduce recidivism, primarily for youth offenders. Like mediation, all parties often express higher satisfaction with this approach than traditional court processes. The main drawbacks of conferencing are that it may provide limited benefits to the most distressed victims and suffers from the same criticisms over confidentiality and the lack of due process protections as community mediation.

A 2001 study identified hundreds of conferencing programs active in the United States, and the Longmont Community Justice Partnership provides an excellent case study of how restorative conferencing can benefit victims, offenders, and the community at large.80

History of Restorative Conferencing

Unlike community mediation, which emerged in the United States primarily to meet the needs of victims and the overwhelmed court system, restorative conferencing originated as a youth justice reform - on the opposite side of the world.

Family Group Conferencing

Despite numerous reform efforts from the 1960s to the early 1980s, New Zealand’s youth justice system was under heavy criticism. A Working Party committee report criticized the welfare and rehabilitative youth justice reforms as broadly ineffective and unnecessary:

Many young people who commit offences do not have any special family or social problems. Any problems they or their families have are more likely to be exacerbated than improved by official intervention triggered by the young person’s prosecution.81

Diversion programs introduced in 1974 that had initially excited the public were viewed by police officers as widely ineffective.82 Perhaps most importantly, the indigenous Maori, who saw their children arrested at over 6 times the rates of their white counterparts, heavily criticized the justice system for ignoring indigenous traditions and culture.83 A report by the Minister of Justice titled ‘Te Whainga I Te Tika,’ (“In Search of Justice”), did not mince words:

The present system is based wholly on the British system of law and justice, completely ignoring the cultural systems of the Māori and breaking down completely that system, completely alienating the Māori, leaving them in a simple state of confusion and at the whim of the existing system.84

In response, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Children, Young Persons and their Families (Oranga Tamariki) Legislation Act in 1989. This act laid out several new approaches for the youth justice system, but the most fundamental shift was in making the Maori tradition

of the “whanau,” or family conference, the standard approach to youth justice proceedings, which it remains in New Zealand today.85

Wagga-Wagga Conferencing

At the core of Family Group Conferencing is the family caucus, or a private meeting between members of the family to decide the best remedy for the offense. However, as family group conferencing spread to Australia, there was some criticism of the family making the ultimatedecisions for the youth offender. In 1991, Terry O’Connell, a sergeant with the Wagga Wagga Police Service, developed a modified version called the Wagga Wagga model.86 In this approach, a police officer or other public official leads the conference, and encourages the family and youth to come to an agreement for restitution and reparation. After showing some success in Wagga Wagga, the model was piloted in 5 other communities by the New South Wales Police Service, but ultimately Australia’s parliament decided to adopt the Family Group Conferencing model pioneered in New Zealand.87

Despite being rejected by its home, Wagga Wagga Conferencing started to spread internationally. In Sparwood, British Columbia, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police initiated Canada’s first restorative conferencing programs. The Thames Valley Police Service in the United Kingdom adopted the Wagga Wagga Model in their community.88 The biggest boost for restorative conferencing, however, came from the modifications brought by Real Justice conferencing.

Real Justice Conferencing

Real Justice Conferencing, named after the Pennsylvania nonprofit that pioneered the model, structures the Wagga Wagga approach around specific restorative principles.89 Otherwise known as community group conferencing, Real Justice conferencing focuses the conference on a specific incident instead of using conferences to uncover needs for rehabilitative or social services. Real Justice conferencing also follows a specific script. The facilitator reads a preamble setting the focus of the conference, asks a specific series of questions to the victim, offender, and any of their support persons or representatives at the conference, negotiates a reparation agreement between the victim and offender, and ends by reintegrating the members of the conference with each other.

Early implementations of the Real Justice model in the United States included a Minnesota state-funded pilot program, efforts in Vermont,90 and the Honolulu Police Department.91

Today, restorative conferencing has taken root in dozens of communities around the United States. A 2001 study identified hundreds of restorative conferencing programs across the country.92

How Restorative Conferencing Works

Restorative conferencing programs receive criminal referrals from police, judges, and other members of the criminal justice system. In some cases, the offender has already been charged and is offered the option of conferencing. If the offender completes the conferencing program, which includes the items in the restorative contract they sign at the end of the conference, then the case is dropped. In other cases, police officers direct a victim-offender pair to conference in lieu of issuing a citation. Victim-offender pairs are typically screened by the type of offense. Different programs have different ways to categorize offenses, and most programs have limits to the kinds of cases they will facilitate. Once screening is complete, the pair are referred to a trained facilitator.

Once the conference facilitator reviews the case, they will start by contacting the victim and offender to arrange the conference. While there are three different models of restorative conferencing, each follows a similar process and primarily differs based on who holds the conference and how structured the facilitator role is.93 The normal process is as follows:94

  1. Outreach - The facilitator contacts the offender and victim or, in the case of youth, their families to explain the conference and invite them to the process. The facilitator also asks the victim and offender to identify key support members to come with them to the conference.
  2. Preparation - The facilitator holds conversations with the offender and victim about the specifics of the conference and schedules the conference with the victim, offender, and their support persons.
  3. Conference - In the conference, the facilitator asks both the victim and offender to share their experience of the situation and its impact on their lives. The facilitator will then ask the offender and victims’ support persons to share their reaction to each of the stories.
  4. Restorative Contract - After a thorough discussion of the impacts, the victim is asked to outline their desired outcomes from a restorative contract. The offender and victim closely negotiate the terms of the contract, often in a way that stresses the strengths of the offender to benefit both parties in the contract. The restorative contract is then signed by both victim and offender.
  5. Reintegration - After the restorative contract is agreed upon, the victim and offender, and their support persons, go through a casual period of reintegration. Sometimes food is served, but this informal social period allows the victim and offender to recognize each other’s humanity and interact in a normal setting.

After the conference is over, the conferencing program facilitator will track the progress of the restorative contract and, since almost all conferencing cases are criminal matters, report the progress of the contract to the police, courts, or other agencies that referred the offender. If the contract is completed, the offender has their case dismissed or charges are never filed. If the contract is broken, the victim still has the opportunity to seek justice in court.

Benefits of Restorative Conferencing over Traditional Justice Approaches

Restorative conferencing, because it often deals with greater harms and more criminal cases than community mediation, may take longer and be more expensive than community me- diation, but it may still be less expensive and faster than court. In addition, it brings with it major additional benefits, such as increased party satisfaction, greater likelihood of apologies and restitution for victims of crime, reduced recidivism, and may even reduce the overall cost of crime to a community.

Short-term Benefits

Party Satisfaction

Like community mediation, one of the most important indicators of the benefits of restorative conferencing is the high satisfaction rates with the process. Several studies have looked at victim satisfaction with conferencing. An evaluation of 12 different conferencing sites in Minnesota found that victim satisfaction with the process and outcome hovered between 93% and 95%.95 A preliminary report of conferencing in Washington County, MN found that 100% of the victims were satisfied with the process, and 80% of victims were satisfied with the restitution they received.96 A majority of studies have found that victims overwhelmingly recommend the process to others.97 While less research has been done on offender perception of the process, one New Zealand study found that 73% of offenders were satisfied with the conferencing process, as opposed to 54% of offenders that went through the court system.98

Long-term Benefits

Offenders are More Likely to Repair Harm

In what is again a somewhat surprising outcome, community conferencing seems to lead to more restitution and reparation for victims. In at least some preliminary findings from a comparison of conferencing to traditional court, Strang, Barnes, Braithwaite and Sherman found that while only 8% of victims reported getting an apology and restitution from offenders in court, 83% of victims in conference cases reported getting an apology and restitution.99

Reduced Mental Issues for Victims

Conferencing also appears to have long term mental health benefits for victims. In London, two randomized, controlled trials were performed to test the effects of conferencing on victim Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms (PTSS) after experiencing a robbery or burglary. Victims that attended restorative conferences showed 49% less instances of clinical PTSS symptoms than victims who went through traditional court processes.100

Community Benefits

Reduced Recidivism

By far the most promising, and well researched, area of restorative conferencing is its effects on recidivism. A meta analysis of 25 restorative conferencing programs, including nearly 12,000 youth offenders, found that restorative conferencing reduced recidivism among youth offenders by an average of 11%.101 A study of the Australian Capital Territory juvenile offender conferencing program found a decrease in matched-case reoffenses of over 30%.102 Individual program studies include an Alameda County, California program that reduced recidivism rates for juveniles by 13.7%, and a National Research Center report on the Longmont Community Justice Partnership’s conferencing programs that found a recidivism rate of only 10% for program participants.103

Reduced Long-term Costs of Crime

While comparative research of the costs of restorative conferences as opposed to court are difficult to find, some studies have found that the cost savings of crimes prevented far outweighs the traditional justice system. One meta-review of 10 restorative conferencing studies in the UK found that the reduced recidivism caused by restorative conferencing reduced the costs of crime to those communities by between 3x and 8.1x more than the cost of the conferences.104

Better Community Policing

Some minimal research also indicates that conferencing can result in more community-oriented policing. A study of the Bethlehem, PA Police Department’s conferencing program found that officers said that they had a more community-oriented and problem-solving approach to their work after attending the conferences.105

Drawbacks of Restorative Conferencing

Restorative conferencing carries similar drawbacks to mediation, in that it may be limited in which victims it can help and there is a lack of due-process protections and transparency in the process.

Limited Benefits for the Most Distressed Victims

One drawback of restorative conferencing is that it may be limited in the types of victims it can serve. Some research indicates that the victims who experienced the most distress from a crime may not experience recovery through the restorative conferencing process. One study of 1,400 conferences in South Africa found that while after one year, 95% of the no-distress, 78% of the low-distress, and 63% of the moderately-distressed victims had recovered, 71% of the high-dis- tress victims had not yet recovered.106

Can’t be Used for Fact-finding

Conferencing, like mediation, is primarily a collaborative process for parties that have agreed that a harm occurred and where the offender has taken responsibility for at least some of the harm. Restorative conference facilitators are not attempting to address whether or not a crime occurred, but how to address the harm caused by that crime, meaning restorative conferencing can likely not be used for fact finding and determining guilt or innocence.107

Lack of Public Transparency & Due Process

Similar to community mediation, restorative conferencing is a private process that is kept con- fidential between the parties. The criticisms that apply to mediation in this way may also apply to restorative conferencing.

Case Study

  1. Wachtel, T. (2016). Restorative Conference. Defining Restorative. International Institute for Restorative Practices.
  2. Weitekamp, E.G.M., & Kerner, H.-J. (Eds.). (2002). Restorative Justice: Theoretical foundations (1st ed.). Willan. Page 196.
  3. Review of the Children and Young Persons. Bill, Renouf, J 1987
  4. Morris, A., & Young, W. (1987). Juvenile Justice in New Zealand: Policy and Practice. Study Series 1. Institute of Criminology, Wellington.
  5. Wittman, M.R. (1995). Juvenile Justice Legislation in New Zealand 1974 –1989: the process of lawmaking. Unpublished LLM dissertation.Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington., p. 82
  6. Emily Watt, A History of Youth Justice in New Zealand (New Zealand: Dept. for Courts, 2003), Page 13
  7. Youth Justice Family Group Conferences. Oranga Tamariki, March 13, 2017.
  8. McCold, Paul. Primary Restorative Justice Practices. In Restorative Justice for Juveniles: Conferencing, Mediation and Circles, edited by Allison Morris and Gabrielle Maxwell, 41-59. London: Hart Publishing, 2001. Accessed May 12, 2022.
  9. O’Connell, Terry. From Wagga Wagga to Minnesota. IIRP. First North American Conference on Conferencing, August 8, 1998.
  10. Ibid.
  11. McCold, Paul. Primary Restorative Justice Practices. In Restorative Justice for Juveniles: Conferencing, Mediation and Circles, edited by Allison Morris and Gabrielle Maxwell, 59. London: Hart Publishing, 2001. Accessed May 12, 2022.
  12. O’Connell, Terry. From Wagga Wagga to Minnesota. IIRP. First North American Conference on Conferencing, August 8, 1998.
  13. Walker, L. (2002). Conferencing: A New Approach for Juvenile Justice in Honolulu. Federal Probation Journal, 66(1), June 2022.
  14. Weitekamp, E.G.M., & Kerner, H.-J. (Eds.). (2002). Restorative Justice: Theoretical foundations (1st ed.). Willan. Page 180.
  15. McCold, Paul. Primary Restorative Justice Practices. In Restorative Justice for Juveniles: Conferencing, Mediation and Circles, edited by Allison Morris and Gabrielle Maxwell, 59. London: Hart Publishing, 2001. Accessed May 12, 2022.
  16. Bazemore, Gordon and Mark S. Umbreit. A Comparison of Four Restorative Conferencing Models. Page 5. (2001).
  17. Latimer, Jeff., &; Kleinknecht, Steven. (2000, January). The Effects of Restorative Justice Programming: A Review of the Empirical. Department of Justice Canada, Research and Statistics Division. Retrieved May 2022, from
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Angel, Caroline. M., Sherman, L. W., Strang, H., Ariel, B., Bennett, S., Inkpen, N., Keane, A., &; Richmond, T. S. (2014). Short-term effects of restorative justice conferences on post-traumatic stress symptoms among robbery and burglary victims: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 10(3), 291–307.
  23. Bradshaw, B., Roseborough, D. (2005). Restorative Justice Dialogue: The impact of mediation and conferencing on juvenile recidivism. Federal Probation, 69 (2), 15 – 21.
  24. Broadhurst, Roderic & Morgan, Anthony & Payne, Jason & Maller, Ross. (2018). Restorative Justice: An Observational Outcome Evaluation of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Program. 10.13140/RG.2.2.11625.44643.
  25. Analysis of Longmont Community Justice Partnership Database 2007-2009 National Research Center. May, 2010.
  26. Sherman, L.W., Strang, H., Mayo-Wilson, E. et al. Are Restorative Justice Conferences Effective in Reducing Repeat Offending? Findings from a Campbell Systematic Review. J Quant Criminol 31, 1–24 (2015).
  27. Latimer, Jeff., &; Kleinknecht, Steven. (2000, January). The Effects of Restorative Justice Programming: A Review of the Empirical. Department of Justice Canada, Research and Statistics Division. Retrieved May 2022, from
  28. Daly, Kathleen. Project Overview and Research Instruments. Griffith. South Australia Juvenile Justice, December 1998. Daly, Kathleen. The Limits of Restorative Justice. Antonio Casella. Griffith University, January 15, 2005. Page 10.
  29. Daly, Kathleen. The Limits of Restorative Justice. Antonio Casella. Griffith University, January 15, 2005. Page 3.