What's it like to take part in RJ?
Please be aware that some of the content below may be upsetting.
This is the real life experience of two people who took part in Restorative Justice (RJ) in Sussex. "Linda" whose father was was killed in a car accident that also left her mother with serious injuries and "Daniel" who was driving the other car. These are their own stories in their own words and that of the co-ordinators who saw them through the RJ process.
"Linda's" story - the experience of a harmed person
The whole experience since the accident in September 2015 has been like doing a jigsaw. Bit by bit it has been a case of putting the pieces together to get the full picture. In the early days, we pieced together the outside to get the outline of the events and then over the following months we put in some of the inner pieces as we were given further information from either the police, the hospital etc. During the court case, we were able to put in many pieces as we were given a substantial amount of information. But key pieces remained missing and the picture was still very muddled as we had many unanswered questions. Through the restorative justice process it has enabled us to fill many of the missing pieces and although not entirely complete a lot of the muddle has gone and we have a much clearer picture. This has enabled me to have a much better acceptance of all that has happened and to even see some positives and good that have come from this tragic experience.
Here’s my story...prior to the court case I remember one of the police officers saying not to expect closure from the court case and to not expect everything to be sorted immediately afterwards – how right that turned out to be! I found the court case a horrendous experience. We didn’t know for sure if Daniel, the defendant, was going to plead guilty or not guilty and we had little information about the degree of remorse he felt. It was a surprise on the day to hear that he, some family members and his employers had all written letters expressing his remorse and supportive letters which we would receive a few days after the court case. I wanted reassurance that the remorse was genuine and heartfelt and not a ploy to get a more lenient sentence.
In court, we had to go over all the details of the crash and the aftermath that followed. My Mum, brother and myself read out Personal Victim Statements detailing how the offence had affected us. This was very difficult to do but I felt it was my chance to speak out for my Dad- the missing victim. Whilst reading mine I remember looking up and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. My intention was not to cause hurt or distress or to aim for a harsh sentence but to give a realistic account of how I had been affected. I remember looking at Daniel, the offender, in the dock thinking that he looked a nice lad and not the thug I had been expecting. I wanted him to explain himself and hear his side of the story. His family were understandably upset and I felt such sadness for them and us – there were no winners in all this mess.
I left the court in tears and feeling such turmoil. I had no comfort or peace knowing that Daniel was “going down”. I could see he wasn’t a hard-faced criminal who had set out to kill my dad but a young bloke who had accidently messed up big time. I knew he needed some form of punishment but this wasn’t going to bring my dad back or make me feel any better. Where was the justice in this? It felt like unfinished business.
I spent the next few days analysing and processing it all. A couple of days later the news broke about the crisis in the prison service. Distressing reports showed the unrest and instability and caused me worry and unease about Daniel’s welfare. I was worried about how he was bearing up and how his family would be coping and yet it was completely out of my hands. We had no say in his sentencing and no opportunity to change his fate. I wanted to speak to someone to check on him so when the probation service contacted my mum in relation to the restorative justice (RJ) service we were very interested to know more. I had never heard of it so I did some research and thought it sounded positive and worthwhile.
My Mum and I had an initial meeting with Ashleigh and Steve at mum’s house. They explained about RJ and filled us in on Daniel’s welfare and time since being sentenced. Straight away we felt very safe and comfortable with them. They explained that Daniel had been very traumatised since the accident and particularly upon entering prison. We were reassured to hear that he had been moved to Ford Open Prison and that although extremely emotional he was bearing up ok. They asked us about how we were coping and took details and assessed the whole situation to see if a meeting with Daniel would be beneficial for us all. They were extremely understanding, sensitive, supportive, empathetic and professional. They left us to think about whether we would like to meet up with Daniel but put absolutely no pressure on us to proceed with the process.
I spent the next week or so struggling over whether if it was the right thing to do. Were we just opening ourselves up to more hurt and emotion? What if it led to more turmoil and disappointment? What if Daniel wasn’t as remorseful as I expected? What if the meeting got too emotional? What if it was too traumatic for my mum? What if I suddenly had a flash of anger and unleashed it? Would Dad approve? Would he be proud of us or were we being disrespectful? The unknown caused me a fair few sleepless nights as my mind was sent into overdrive. What if..? What if..?
The reassurance I needed came from mum who felt that dad would approve and would most certainly want us to all move on with our lives. He wouldn’t have wanted us to ruin ours or Daniel’s life but to pick up the pieces and carry on. So we set the date for about a month away which was enough time to prepare and have more sleepless nights!
Before the meeting, Mum met with Ashleigh and Steve to make final arrangements. I spoke with Ashleigh on the phone so that we were all prepared with the format of the meeting.
On the morning of the meeting I felt very peaceful and like it was definitely the right thing to do. My one concern was that Daniel would pull out at the last minute and after gearing up for it I think I would have been disappointed. On arrival at Ford Prison we were taken to the meeting room whilst Steve met Daniel and brought him over to join us. We had time to settle and get our bearings whilst Ashleigh explained the plan of action. She explained that Steve would introduce us and give us time to get acclimatised to the situation and ease us all in gently. She provided us with tissues and water and stressed that if we needed time out at any point we should just let them know. On the whole I felt remarkably calm although the situation felt surreal.
Steve arrived with Daniel who looked extremely nervous and uncomfortable. He couldn’t make eye contact with us and was fiddling with his packet of tissues. After Steve’s introduction Daniel was invited to talk to explain his account of the accident. It was obvious that he found it difficult but he did well at starting off. We tried to help by asking questions and to engage with him and to relax him so that he didn’t feel too much under the spot light. We hadn’t come to vent our emotions or be confrontational but rather to find out answers to questions. I realised that to maximise this it was best to make it as relaxed as we could.
Daniel was open and honest and answered the questions that mum had about the actual accident. It was good to hear his side of it and how he felt about it all and to see his remorse and regret. Quite early in the conversation he openly confessed that it wasn’t unusual for him to drive fast and that he now regretted doing overtime at work to earn extra money to modify his car and how it was so meaningless and stupid now. I really appreciated and respected his honesty and openness and felt that he didn’t have to tell us that.
It was so reassuring to see that he had reformed his mindset and I felt reassured that he had learnt his lesson and wouldn’t be reoffending. I feel he will leave prison stronger, wiser and more mature. It was very touching to see that he had a lot of concern for mum and the rest of the family and frequently thought of us and wondered how we were getting on.
It was good to hear about his family and how they were bearing up as well. It was reassuring to hear that together with Daniel’s girlfriend they were supportive and he was having regular visits.
It was also interesting to find out about life inside prison and encouraging to hear that Daniel was getting a lot of support and had enrolled on courses to further his learning and give him opportunities to learn some new skills.
Within a short space of time it felt that Daniel, mum and I had relaxed and were having a conversation rather than an interrogation which flowed better. Steve and Ashleigh sometimes directed and navigated the conversation and asked questions. We even joked at times and we ended having tea and biscuits. It finished with smiles and hugs and it felt like we had formed a strong bond with Daniel based on a mutual concern for each other. It was incredible the transformation in Daniel from the beginning of the meeting to the end. He looked as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and was so much more relaxed. It was good to have seen that and humbling to have helped in the transformation.
On reflection I found the RJ process a very powerful and healing one that I would recommend in the right circumstances. My main reasons for doing it were;
- To get answers to unanswered questions
- To see that Daniel’s remorse was sincere and genuine
- To see that the punishment Daniel was given was just and fair and that he was bearing up
I was not disappointed as all my reasons were met positively.
I am grateful to Daniel for the remorse that he has shown as this has made it easier to forgive. The RJ process has taught me a lot about the power of forgiveness and that through forgiving it has shifted and lifted something in me. I found it liberating to say the words “I forgive you and you have my blessing”. I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to do so. Restorative Justice was the main way that this was communicated and I am grateful that he was willing to go ahead with it.
Credit must go to Steve and Ashleigh for their passion, expertise, care and support. They have continued to liaise between Daniel, mum and myself transferring letters and still giving support. I am grateful to them for moving us all along.
It has helped me to better accept what has happened and moved me further along the grieving and healing process. Of course, it doesn’t take away the pain of losing my dad but it has somehow helped me to be more peaceful about it. It has made me see that some good can come out of adverse situations.
My Christian faith has undoubtedly been a driving force that has helped me come to terms with everything and has given me strength and grace when I’ve needed it. The Restorative Justice meeting was a means of putting my faith into action and offering forgiveness face to face. By offering my forgiveness I hope that it can free Daniel to forgive himself.
In conclusion, the RJ process has certainly helped put in many pieces of my jigsaw. The last remaining piece of "why" will have to wait but that’s good enough for now.
"Daniel's" story - the experience of a harmer
At the time of the offence I was really busy and really stressed. I had no time for anything. I worked a ten hour day, then two hours at college, another hour in the gym and so much travelling in between. It seemed that I was putting a lot of time and effort into earning a living, and bettering myself, and I didn’t feel that I had anything to show for it. Life was really hard but only because I made it that way. I needed to chill out. I had great friends and family but I was secretly very troubled and unhappy. I couldn’t see any of the good stuff I had going on…I just didn’t realise…
My first feeling at the accident was that it wasn’t real, maybe I was hallucinating, maybe I’m asleep and this is a bad dream, it was somehow all very quiet. After about 30 seconds I knew it was real and this was very serious, and I felt physically sick like I really thought I was going to throw up. Just moments before this as I actually hit the car and started spinning I can remember thing to myself "**** this is a bad one, but it’s going to be OK, just a few wrecked cars and some angry people". After I called 999 I just stood watching people tending to Alison and James. I remember not being able to do anything. I wanted to be one of the other people, holding their hands and telling them that they were gonna be OK, and that the ambulance would be here soon but I felt so guilty and ashamed.
A man then took me to his car, where I had about five or ten minutes alone. I just hung my head and cried. Now I started to think about me, and I thought "that’s it, everything’s gone, life as I know it is over". But my thoughts quickly went back to Alison and James as by now the emergency services had turned up. A police officer came and sat with me and asked me to talk her through what had happened. I remember asking her lots of questions like do you think that they are gonna be OK, how are they doing, have you seen an accident like his before? But what I really wanted to ask her was "are there people dying in there?". But I couldn’t ask that, I was too scared what the answer would be.
The police then put me in their BMW and took me off to the police station for questioning. It was about a twenty minute drive and this gave me time to gather my thoughts and come to terms with what had just happened. It was a crazy mix of emotions: fear, guilt, anger at myself. I could hardly get a word out and this got worse as the next few days went on. I was so terribly worried for Alison and James.
I don’t think people knew what to say to me. Mum would always have teary eyes and just kept wanting to hug me. I would try to say as little as possible to people and try and avoid them so I didn’t have to talk to anybody.
The next morning I had to call my boss and explain to him what had happened and why I wasn’t at work. I had to call my insurance and go all through all that had happened and then I had to go back to the police station for a proper interview. Everyone was so nice and supportive, but I felt so bad about myself, so guilty. I literally couldn’t stand all these people being nice to me and caring for me because I couldn’t stop thinking of Alison and James. I asked a police officer if I could go and be with them but she told me to stay away. I guess that it would have been very distressing for the family if I had turned up.
The police called me on a Wednesday afternoon at about 4.00pm to tell me James had passed away. I didn’t tell anyone for about two days. I knew that when I told people they were gonna tell me that they were sorry and hug me. I'd run out of the energy for politely accepting loved ones’ sympathy and support that I didn’t deserve. I couldn’t take it anymore. I started to get angry when people tried to play down what I had done, that it was just an accident that could have happened to anyone. I would think: ‘Tell that to James’s family…like sorry I accidently killed your husband and your dad, I just had to get to the gym by 7.30!’ It was around this time that I really started to think about killing myself. I was becoming increasingly emotional and angry, and breaking down on a regular basis. My loved ones were really worried about me and my mental state and they would try to comfort me and reassure me. This would make me more disgusted with myself so I would sink even lower and shut them out more. The only reason I didn’t kill myself is because of all the hurt it would have caused my mum and dad and family.
Leading up to court I tried to keep my head down and keep busy, trying not to freak out about what lay ahead of me. I was scared but wanted to stay strong for mum, dad and my girlfriend. I think I kind of lost myself after the accident, especially after James passed away. When you have to do things with people who don’t know what’s going on with you, you obviously have to appear to be normal and OK, and in doing so you end up becoming all these different versions of you. I’d have to be ‘this guy’ at night school, ‘this other guy’ at work, and someone else with mum and dad. It was a crazy time and I was so bottled up.
Court was tough. It was a long wait before going in. I had to watch my girlfriend and family fighting their emotions, their tears, for over an hour. I knew I was going off to prison and so did they, so I said my goodbyes to them individually and just kept telling them not to worry or get upset. But the hardest thing was listening to Alison, Linda and Dylan speak about how the accident and the death of James had affected them. That hurt me more than I could bear, and it is something that has stayed with me ever since. I remember it vividly. Their faces, how they struggled to get their words out, how they had to keep pausing to keep their composure. I knew that I was responsible for all this pain and destruction.
On arrival at prison I had sleepless nights thinking about the accident; thinking about Alison and all the hurt I had caused her and all her family by my actions which had led to the death of her husband. Over time my feelings of guilt and worry for the people involved grew, and I sensed that this would go on for ever.
Then I heard about restorative justice at a Drop In run at the prison. I was excited to hear about it and how the people there might be able to help me. I felt like there was a lot of unfinished business; so much left unsaid, and I really wanted Alison to know how sorry I was and see if she was OK. Maybe even if I could help her somehow. And restorative justice might make this happen….
Before long I was having meetings with Ashleigh and Steve from the restorative justice team. I was nervous and anxious at first as I didn’t know these people and I knew that in order for them to help me I was going to have to tell them my story and let them in on my darkest thoughts and feelings which wouldn’t be easy. Thankfully Steve and Ashleigh were great listeners and appreciated that it was tough for me to talk about my feelings. The meetings were very relaxed and I never felt pressurised.
The strange thing about restorative justice is that it can be stressful and daunting as you re-live what you have done and been through; you make yourself vulnerable by facing some demons but it turned out to be so rewarding. Going back over what had happened helped me to expose and uncover thoughts, feelings and emotions that had been lost or buried by everything that had gone on.
It wasn’t long before Ashleigh and Steve were able to arrange meeting between Alison, her daughter Linda and myself. I had about a month’s notice, which gave me a lot of time to prepare myself. At first I was excited and felt positive about it, but as it got closer I started to get a bit stressed and nervous about it. I remember that Ashleigh had gone through the seating plan with me, and Steve involved me in how he would introduce us and start the meeting off. It was nice to know that they were gonna be there and that they could help out if things got too much, like too emotional or awkward.
On the day of the meeting I was feeling a mix of emotions; scared, nervous, anxious, happy and excited at the same time. The meeting was at 1.30pm, so Steve had arranged to meet me in the Chaplaincy at 1.00pm. We had a catch up then heard that Alison and Linda had arrived so we walked across to the meeting room. As we got closer any positive feelings I had about the meeting had left me; now I was properly scared, especially as I got to the door of the room. When we went into the room Alison and Linda had been there a little while with Ashleigh. I said hello but it was some time before I could look directly at them.
Steve started of the meeting off by telling us about how it might go and how anyone could have time out if they needed to. It started off with me talking about what had happened on the night of the accident. It was really hard to get my words out, even though it was a story I had told a lot of times. I think I was worried about upsetting Alison and Linda because there was simply no reason I could give for my driving that night. But they were remarkably calm and understanding and sweet. Alison had a lovely way about her that made me feel a lot better as the meeting went on, and it became easier for me to get my words out.
There were a few occasions when we could have run into some awkward silences so it was nice to have Ashleigh and Steve there to keep things moving along. I think that it’s a good idea to have a couple of people there who are not emotionally involved in the situation as emotions were running high for me, Alison and Linda and so we might have forgotten or got distracted from certain questions we wanted to talk about.
Overall I felt that the meeting went really well. I had walked in a nervous wreck but finished with tea, biscuits, hugs and smiles. As I walked away from the meeting back into the prison I felt very strange, but in a really good way. I definitely felt that a weight had been lifted, but I was kinda spaced out and needed to be on my own for a time to take it all in. I had got all I wanted from that meeting, and then some. But it’s scary to think that it’s something that might so nearly not have happened. There were times when I thought "screw this, I can’t meet these people, I can’t face them, after all I’ve done to them". I was terrified. I had thought about burying it all and trying to get on with my life; but I would have been kidding myself.
Before the meeting I was really unhappy and that stuff was eating me up. It would have broken me in no time. So now I’m just so glad that I went to that RJ Drop In. I didn’t know it at the time but that was a huge turning point in my life. My experience in that meeting, the forgiveness and kindness I received from Alison and Linda, has given me something I think I needed in order for me to forgive myself. This experience has kick started my own healing process and will help me get on with the rest of my life.
Steve and Ashleigh - the experience of the facilitators
Our experience of facilitating this case, involving causing death by dangerous driving, both re-affirmed, and developed, our belief that Restorative Justice can be an extraordinarily powerful force for good. Daniel’s and Linda’s testimony speaks for itself, being both moving and revealing. Both, in their different ways, worked so hard to enable each other to experience the healing and ability to move on that they sought. We admire them so much for their honesty, integrity, generosity of spirit and their sheer bravery.
In this case and in others in which we have been involved we saw, vividly, that RJ can provide what conventional forms of justice cannot; and these two forms of justice can work complementarily. In today’s world the antidote that RJ can deliver is vital: generating a sense of inclusion where exclusion can be the dominant force, supplanting hate with love and reminding us all of our interdependency if we are not to lose our humanity.
Essentially in this case, as in so many others, RJ worked by bringing people together, so that their voices could be heard, their self-awareness and their awareness of other’ needs, developed, and confidence and dignity restored. RJ reveals personal truths: through active listening by all parties, allowing feelings to be expressed, understood and then acted upon as deep empathy is generated. But all this is in the context of a realisation that we are all flawed in different ways, there being no simple division into saints and sinners. Rather, we are human beings, who have fears as well as hopes, and particular reasons for the way we act. But who also need answers. Which RJ can provide.
As Linda says in her testimony, life is like pieces of a jumbled jigsaw immediately post crime. Getting answers through RJ helps to put the pieces back together, to restore the continuity of the life story. You start with the straight edges and fill in the middle bits so that a picture emerges from which feelings of safety and confidence can flow.
For Linda the broad questions relevant in the case were: what was going through Daniel's mind? What sort of human being is he? What could happen next so that I can move forward? What do I want? Is it possible for me to forgive him? For Daniel: What, in full detail, was the nature of the harm and pain I caused? How can I take responsibility? How can I start to repair the damage?
Getting answers to these sort of questions enabled Linda to get back to living her life. For Daniel, there was the gaining of self-awareness that will enable him to be able to reflect on and learn from what happened and reduce the risk of re-offending. To be able to move on and, in his words, to feel release from ‘the prison in his head’. For him the process was at times ‘traumatic’, but he now looks back on having ‘faced his demons’ in order to move on to better place to live a better life.
For the two of us as facilitators we feel that we gave the participants the opportunity to undergo a transformative experience. They listened to each other, both having the opportunity to ask questions and to get answers. Linda also had the opportunity to forgive when it felt right for her. The process itself can be life affirming, showing each participant the worth of everyone. As facilitators we were there to encourage this. It was a chance to counterbalance the injustices of the CJS for both victim and perpetrator.
In this case we saw and experienced true humanity and the strength of the human spirit.
Contact you local Restorative Justice hub
If you're interested in taking part in RJ please contact your local hub who will be happy to discuss it with you:
East Sussex Restorative Justice hub: email@example.com
Brighton & Hove Restorative Justice hub: firstname.lastname@example.org
West Sussex Restorative Justice hub: email@example.com