Who can take part in Victim-Offender Encounters (VOE) sessions?
Anyone who is still suffering the consequences of a past crime can participate in our sessions. Individuals may be primary or secondary victims. Offenders may have already served their sentences or they are currently serving their sentences in the community. They may be on parole or incarcerated.
Some VOE sessions bring together victims of incest. Others are open to victims of various crimes (physical or sexual aggression, theft, fraud, traffic accidents caused by an impaired person, etc.) and offenders who have committed similar crimes.
In addition to the four offenders and the four victims, two facilitators and two community representatives attend each session. All of them are volunteers.
The role of the facilitators consists essentially in supervising the discussions and ensuring the smooth running of the discussions, in a safe and respectful environment.
As for the community representatives, they are witnesses to the process, but they may also contribute as citizens to the exchanges between the various parties. Indeed, they symbolize the society that, on the one hand, allowed crime to happen, and, on the other hand, also suffered the consequences.
What are the VOE sessions?
VOEs are NOT group therapy sessions; no form of psychological counselling, treatment or diagnosis is provided during these meetings.
Instead, the sessions allow sharing personal experiences and testimonies from victims and offenders alike. The facilitators are present to oversee and ensure a structure to allow everyone to freely express themselves in a respectful and safe environment. Everyone is encouraged to share their story and be available to listen to others.
VOEs are 6 to 7 weekly, 3-hour sessions. Moreover, there is an additional follow-up session three months later. Each session addresses a new topic that participants are asked to discuss, or a portion of the testimony from a member of the group.
It is also possible to participate in “Face-to-Face” meetings which bring together only three participants and the facilitators: one person who has been a victim, another who has committed a related crime and a representative of the society. This formula consists of 3 weekly meetings, followed by an evaluation and follow-up meeting 3 months later.
An activity to bring home is offered between each session. This gives participants the opportunity to prepare for the next meeting.
What are the requirements for participating in these sessions?
In addition to agreeing to respect the anonymity of group members and the confidentiality of discussions, participants must enroll freely and of their own will with clearly identified and realistic goals, as well as with the sincere desire to take part in the series of sessions.
It is important for participants to understand and express the consequences of crime in their life. Offenders must admit their guilt, be capable of empathy and show a desire to change their wrongful behaviour.
Participants also need an outside support system (friend, family, support group or fellowship like AA, etc.) and, if possible, therapeutic support that is ideally pre-established, regular, and accessible throughout the process. If this is not the case, the CSJR will advise individuals on how to get access to therapy.
It is important to note that for meetings taking place in a detention facility, only victims and community representatives without a criminal record will be allowed to enter the facility.
What type of support does the CSJR offer during the sessions?
Throughout the process, facilitators remain available for participants between meetings to provide support when needed. They may decide to contact participants if they notice that one or more of them has expressed difficulties, and facilitators will then refer participants to any appropriate resources.
What are the dangers of participating in VOE sessions?
Some argue that restorative justice may re-victimize the victim, also known as secondary victimization. However, our own experience shows us that this is not the case. Emotions like anger can arise during testimony sharing. While the path may be difficult emotionally, it brings about liberation.
It is important to note that the CSJR has set up a rigorous selection process. Individual interviews determine whether individuals who would like to take part in VOE sessions meet participation requirements. We assess if potential participants have the necessary tools to deal with these kinds of sessions, and make sure they do not present psychological conditions that could harm them during, and after the meetings.
At the end of each session, participants come together in subgroups in order to give feedback on the session, and to share what they could not or did not want to share during the session. The two facilitators are duly trained, and at least one of them has professionally recognized experience in counselling or psychotherapy.
What are the motivations of the participants, and the benefits they experience after VOEs?
The motivations of people who have been victims are most often: to express themselves, to be listened to and recognized, to understand, to free themselves from destructive emotions, to help prevent recidivism, to move on.
As for the offenders, they wish to understand, help, repair, become aware, and further a personal journey.
From 2005 to 2008, the Correctional Service of Canada commissioned studies from the CSJR on VOE sessions’ impact on participants (the results can be communicated on request). Here is a summary of some data from this study:
- Impact on victims of crimes (2007 figures): 93% of victims noted a decrease in the negative emotions (fear, anger, sadness), 86% felt a decrease in the hatred they had experienced -with respect to their offender, 72% indicated that the appointments helped them to come out of their victimization.
- Impact on offenders (2008 figures): 88% mentioned that the sessions allowed them to fully understand the harm they caused, 83% believe that the sessions would help them not to reoffend , 78% say they understood the victim better.
Finally, 94% of victims and 100% of offenders would recommend VOE sessions to people in a situation similar to theirs.
To know more about the impact of VOEs, you can read testimonials from people who have been victims, offenders, as well as members of society.
Do offenders get any benefit for their participation, for example, reduced sentence or early parole?
No. It is essential for the CSJR that offenders stand to gain nothing by participating in VOE sessions. This program does not lead to early release from prison.
Is this service free?
Currently, this service is offered free of charge. The costs related to this program are covered by the CSJR. Any donation to the CSJR is nevertheless welcome. This is tax deductible as the CSJR is recognized as a charitable organization.
Where do VOE sessions take place?
The sessions take place in the greater Montreal area, either in the community or in a prison setting. Meetings are also possible in Cowansville, Drummondville, Joliette, Sherbrooke, Granby, Ste Anne-des-plaines in Quebec. Internationally, experiments have been carried out in France on the basis of what is proposed by the CSJR.
When they take place in the community, the VOE sessions take place at the CSJR office spaces, or in any other location that can guarantee the confidentiality of the discussions. The offenders who participate are serving their sentence in the community (halfway house) or have completed their sentence. Some sessions have taken place in Repentigny with members of the Parents Unis organization.
When they take place in a prison setting, the offenders who participate in these meetings are residents of the institution in which the meetings are held. Since the inception of the CSJR, VOEs have been held in the following locations: Archambault Institution, Leclerc Institution, Montée St-François Institution, Federal Training Centre.
Do VOE sessions have a religious affiliation?
The CSJR is not a faith-based organization, but recognizes the spiritual dimension of the person. If participants wish to mention the importance of their spirituality or faith in their healing process, they are welcomed with respect. Facilitators, on the other hand, take a neutral stance. Forgiveness, in either the religious or secular sense, is not a goal of VOEs per se, but some participants may see it as a final step in their liberation process.
In some prisons, the chaplain is the person who centralizes the requests from the inmates, and may participate as an observer in the meetings. But no preference in the choice of persons is made on a religious basis.
Still have questions? Please contact us!