Working With Offenders
“Offenders,” “perpetrators,” “defendants,” “law-breakers,” “criminals”. . . there are a lot of terms we could use for the people who break the social contract or cause another harm. I will use the term “offender” as the label for such folks, although in practice I prefer to use the name of the person. Any label has the
effect of objectifying and dehumanizing someone who is already feeling separate from others.
Some offenses are crimes and some are not. When I insult you, I am offending. A few days ago, I had an emotional outburst that seemed to take me over. I said things I didn't ever think I would say to someone I love. I was an offender.
Take a moment and remember a time when you said or did something that harmed someone. Perhaps you lost your temper or maybe you were stopped while speeding. Or maybe you had a more serious brush with the law.
How did you feel? What did you need? Were you afraid of what might happen to you as a result of your transgression? Were you ashamed, embarrassed? Was your opinion of yourself affected? Do you want to be remembered, defined, and known for your bad behavior?
We all do it. Some of us do it on a grander scale of breaking laws. After my outburst, I was comforted when I happened to channel surf onto the movie about the life of Gandhi. The serendipitous segment I happened upon was the scene with Gandhi yelling at his wife and throwing her out. He apologized. His wife said that he was human, after all.
We human beings can generally justify our behaviors even if we think we’re doing something wrong. We always want to see ourselves in the best light. We want to be the hero in our own story. When we are offending, we are no different. Offenders often react with justification. In in stories about ourselves, we are justified in our behaviors.
When we're working with offenders, we may find that their value systems may be different than ours. Some have had violent upbringings where their black-and-white realities gave them the choice of being the perpetrator of violence or the victim of it. Some may justify their behaviors by blaming drugs or alcohol. They may believe they deserve a break because of X, Y, or Z. It seems a strange phenomenon that getting caught can sometimes generate the same reactions as victimization, as though the one catching us and exposing our offense is to blame for its happening.
The adversarial legal system encourages offenders to avoid responsibility. It becomes the lawyer’s job to “get me off,” and the court system becomes the enemy, out to get the offender. Telling the story is the last thing that most lawyers want their clients to do, yet telling the story and making amends may be the very act that is required for the healing of all concerned. Restorative justice and similar approaches also hold offenders accountable by facilitating and enforcing reparative agreements, including restitution.
Accepting punishment under criminal laws is passive and requires no responsibility or affirmative acts from the offender. It often supports the reaction of victimization for the offender—the system becomes the persecutor in the drama. But offenders who face their victims and make agreements are much more likely to follow through on their restitution agreements. Most studies show they are also less likely to re-offend.
What offenders need to heal:
• To express their remorse, sorrow, and regret for the harm done and offer apologies.
• To have someone accept their remorse as genuine.
• To tell their story without justification or excuse.
• To gain insight into effects of offending.
• To have someone understand and acknowledge their victimization — offenders have almost always been victims in the past.
• Opportunities to make things right.
• Meaningful accountability.
• Reintegration into community.
• Acknowledgment of their humanity and goodness.
• To have someone listen and to allow them to hear their own justifications.
• Help making wise choices and validating their wise choices.
One of the most powerful victim–offender dialogues I ever witnessed was actually in a divorce case. My client, the wife, had an affair and ended the marriage. The husband was devastated. Emotions were sky high. Our efforts to bring settlement and closure kept failing, and we thought that we were going to have to end the collaborative process.
Then, with the help and support of her skilled divorce coach, my client issued the most thorough, dramatic, and heartfelt apology I have ever witnessed. She took full responsibility for her actions and acknowledged the pain she had caused. She listed her every transgression (the impact the affair had on her and her husband, the pain caused to their son and their community of friends, etc.). She told him that she had justified her behavior by telling herself that his behavior was emotionally abusive and that even if it were true, she could have taken a different path and that she was responsible for her actions, not him. She went on and on, letting him know that he had been fully heard and she knew she was
responsible for his pain and the end of their marriage. Both of them cried.
The case settled.
Cutting Edge Law interviewed Donna Hamilton, a former court administrator who took money from the court system. She tells her story in this video:
Watch the video and map on the ideas here to learn more about what offenders need.