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Apology Banks: good or bad?

various flags blown by wind

Recently at a national correctional conference where I was presenting on victims-driven  restorative justice I also participated on a panel on restorative justice with other justice experts from around the country. A question was raised about apology banks.  If you have not heard of this concept generally it is a process that allows an inmate to write his victim and apologize for his crime. The letter is then sent to a “bank” set up by a state, here in the U.S., usually via the department of corrections and often through its victims services division. The letter is held in this bank and the victim is notified that a letter is at the bank. The victim then has the option of requesting it to read it. Sometimes victims are contacted regarding the creation of an apology bank to get their approval before a letter is written to ask if they would like to receive a letter in the event one is written by their offender.
I have stated publicly that RJI has some concerns with the concept but we also  we do not oppose the idea outright. We think apology banks could be designed better.  Since RJI does a great deal of work with victims of violent crime we know that some victims could have a problem with apology banks. Some victims  would be concerned that offenders might write these letters of apology and be insincere about their apology or they might feel that the offender is only writing the letter to gain “points” for doing so. But more than that our greatest concern is that apology banks open up the potential for some kind of contact between the victim and the offender but through this type of process it is only scratching the surface, as it were.  Do victims want an apology?  Our experience is that most victims do. But it must be real, sincere and an expression of remorse.
RJI would suggest that apology banks are step one in moving towards some kind of restorative justice process.  Apology banks could be described as more restorative. We would like to see each state in the U.S. that offers an apology bank through their department of corrections then follow up by providing more meaningful restorative justice processes to victims who are interested in it. We consider victim offender dialogue to be the “gold standard,” in the field of restorative justice. Meaningful dialogue that could occur between a victim and offender must go much further than an exchange of one letter or the receiving of one letter. The goal should be to lead an offender towards taking responsibility for his actions. For this to happen it is RJI’s position that our justice system in the U.S., as well as so many justice systems around the globe, must do more to hold offenders accountable and allow some kind of restoration to occur in the lives of crime victims.  Apart from victim offender dialogue RJI is a strong proponent of in-custody restorative justice programs that bring victims and offenders together—sometimes using surrogates (real victims and offenders but unrelated cases). Having directed an in-custody victim offender program myself in 1998 in the state of Texas, I can say that these programs have great value and are something needed in every jail an prison.
While speaking at this national conference I was joined by Wyoming state legislator Stephen Watt, also a victim of severe violence. In his state there is an apology bank. However, I learned later from Rep. Watt that he viewed the apology bank with much skepticism. Often apology banks are set up with every good intention but if we want real accountability in offenders and we want to see victims of crime experience some level of restoration, and increased satisfaction, we must go further. Rep. Watt went further after being shot by a fleeing bank robber. Later in his life Watt make the man who shot him five times. The healing that occurred in Watt’s life and the transformation of the offender through his taking responsibility for his actions cannot be measured.  But this type of change and restoration calls for more restorative justice and for it to be much more meaningful than the writing of one letter.
This is Lisa Rea for Restorative Justice International.