Conferencing is a restorative alternative to the traditional criminal justice system that can be used to deal with a wide variety of conflicts, from student misbehavior to serious crimes. Conferencing is an option when the person charged with the offense acknowledges their responsibility for the incident and, in cases when serious harm has been done, the victim agrees to the process. Conferences generally include a facilitator, victim(s) or their representatives, the offender(s), support people (usually friends or family members of those involved), others who have been affected, and sometimes social service members, police, or representatives of other public agencies.
Conferences follow a clear protocol designed to get to the root of the problems that led to the offense. First, the facilitator conducts separate interviews with all parties, explaining the conferencing process in detail. These interviews help prepare them for the conference and help them understand the circumstances of the case, who should be involved in the conference, and how to maintain a balance of power among participants and within the conference so the victim is not revictimized. Within a conference, offenders explain the incident from their perspective, and can come to understand the effects of their actions on those harmed.
When the group is satisfied that their questions have been answered, they discuss how the harm can be repaired through appropriate restitution. Most discussions conclude with a restitution plan signed by all participants. Often the group will come back together to acknowledge and celebrate the completion of the contract and the reintegration of the offender into the community.
Internationally, conferencing has been shown to reduce recidivism, keep juveniles and adults out of prison, prevent future problems by providing services to the offender and their family, and provide more satisfying outcomes for the victims. Conferencing works to achieve a lasting harmony among all parties, an especially important end when the victims and offenders live in the same community. Though not appropriate for all cases, nor always successful, conferencing is a more effective and less costly alternative to the traditional criminal justice system.