Why me?’s resident facilitator, Charlotte Calkin explains why letter writing has a vital part to play in the restorative process in some cases.
By Restorative Letters we do not mean the initial contact letters that are sent to victims inviting them to participate in a restorative process; instead, we mean the letters written by harmers for their victims.
The purpose of this blog is to look at the difference between Letters of Apology and Restorative Letters and also the value of Restorative Letters when they are managed truly restoratively.
This blog was initiated by a meeting that Lucy Jaffe (Why me? Director) and I had with Baroness Newlove, the Victims Commissioner, during which she aired some of her concerns about Restorative Justice. One of her primary concerns was that she had heard of several instances of victims receiving unexpected ‘restorative’ letters from the offenders of their crime and she was, quite rightly, concerned about the harm this can cause. In some cases these letters had arrived through the post and the victim had no idea they were going to arrive. She had good reason to feel concern. An unwanted letter from the harmer to the harmed person is akin to inviting the harmer into your front room and can be wholly unwelcome.
When I trained there was a lot of discussion about the principle of Restorative Letters but I was not trained in how to write a letter restoratively. When I first worked on a restorative case that had resulted in a letter as an outcome I worked with an experienced practitioner who trained me in the process of Restorative Letters and I discovered the nuances of restorative letter writing.
Many prisons offer programmes (such as TSP) offering offenders the opportunity to write a letter to their victim, to build on their victim empathy skills and young offenders are often invited to write letters of apology to their victims as part of their sentence plan. In both cases the work done during these exercises is often of huge benefit to the harmer, but these are not restorative letters per se. In both cases victims may well be happy to receive these ‘letters of apology’ but only if a facilitator has checked in with the victim about their thoughts and feelings about the harmer and the possibility of receiving a letter. The letter cannot be primarily for the benefit of the offender with the victim as an add-on.
Steve from Remedi says:
I’ve seen practitioners claiming to be restorative who use pre printed ‘letters of apology’ which they just get the offender to sign and then pass on to the victim! Appalling – but lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The answer is to address bad practice and ensure that quality INDIRECT services are facilitated.
A restorative letter differs from a letter of apology because it responds to the needs and questions of the offender’s own victim – not a generic victim.
Victims have very specific requests and it is extremely important that a restorative letter from the harmer is managed to meet that victim’s needs.
In what circumstances are letters appropriate?
If, after a careful risk assessment, a letter is considered the most appropriate option – or alternatively the only option that either party will agree to – then the practitioner needs to prepare for the letter writing as they would any other restorative intervention – so that expectations and outcomes for both sides are managed appropriately.
Some victims might want to know about the harmer’s history; some might want practical questions answering. Some victims may want to write a letter himself or herself and explain to the harmer about the impact of their crime alongside asking questions. It is important to gauge in preparation what the harmer is willing to answer.
Letters are extremely effective tools and it is frustrating that when delivered through best practice guidelines, which often requires many, many hours of facilitator’s time, they are given so much less value than a face-to-face conference.
Here is an excerpt from my continuing dialogue with Steve, which was echoed by many experienced practitioners:
In regard to the ongoing direct/indirect RJ debate- this for me is the most frustrating issue in the restorative world. The starting point (which seems to have secured full statutory support and belief) is that conferences, face to face, direct RJ are very very good and letter exchanges, shuttle communication, indirect RJ is not only a ‘waste of time’ but also ‘a failure on the part of the restorative practitioner’
Never underestimate the value of communication via letters.
Here is a report from a victim who worked with Remedi. Claire’s 19 year old son had been killed as a result of a drink driver who had subsequently fled the scene Here is her account of the healing she received through communication via letters:
“There was no way I think I could ever bring myself to meet him face to face. I can see why some people would but it wasn’t for me. I thought about it and Remedi gave me all the information and time I needed to make my mind up but it wasn’t for me. Instead I wrote a long letter explaining what a beautiful person inside and out my son was and the devastation our family has gone through losing him. It took me ages to write the letter, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and just doing that helped me so much as it allowed me to let out all I had inside of me. I also wanted to know what the offender thought now. He pleaded guilty in court and we never got the chance to know if he even had any regrets so I asked for a letter back.
I got the letter back a couple of weeks later and I was surprised at how much reading his words really helped me. I will never ever forgive him for what he did and I never want to see him again but I am happy that I took part in this and I can’t praise the Remedi staff enough for how supportive and caring they were. Nothing will take away the pain of losing my baby boy but taking part in this has helped me cope with that loss more than anything else I have done. Thank you so much”
How much should you help the harmer with letter writing?
The process of letter writing can be very therapeutic for the harmer. During preparation ask what they might think the victim would want answering – prior to receiving the questions. It is important that the letter is in the harmer’s own voice and authentic to them and you need to check whether they need support for this. The Offender Supervisor in a prison can be very helpful but the OS needs to understand the purpose of restorative letters.
How should the letter be delivered?
Deliver the letter in person. Arrange with the victim whether they would like to read it themselves or for you to read it. Allow time to discuss the impact of the letter.
Should you leave the letter with the victim?
A letter can be powerful ammunition. I have spoken to many offenders who are concerned that their letter might end up on social media. I have equally spoken to many facilitators who explain to the victim during the preparation that they will not be able to keep the letter.
What happens if after writing letters both parties decide they want to meet each other to resolve any final points?
If the initial decision to write letters was because the parties would not contemplate an alternative, but they had been risk assessed as safe to do so, then a meeting can go ahead.
Key Tips On Restorative Letters
- Make sure that the letter responds to the victim’s questions
- Give the victim an opportunity to write a letter expressing how they have been impacted and ask their questions
- Do not write the letter for the harmer.
- Prepare for manageable expectations and outcomes as you would a conference.
- Explain to the victim that they may not be able to keep the letter.
- Arrange how the victim would like to receive the letter.
If the letter is actually a ‘letter of apology’ then do not send it to the victim without
- The victim’s permission;
- Discussion with the victim about how they will receive it;
- Checking the victim’s resilience.