Sometimes success in victim-offender reconciliation comes in small steps.
Shelley Diehl, Douglas County deputy district attorney and former juvenile prosecutor, remembers one young woman who'd sparred verbally with another girl at her high school for years before finally pushing her into a locker and bloodying her lip.
She was charged with battery it was her first offense and went through a diversion program. One of the requirements was that she participate in the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, known as VORP, and meet face-to-face with the girl she'd injured.
Diehl, who as prosecutor could not be involved in the meeting between the girl and her victim, later asked the girl how the meeting went.
"She said, 'I still don't like her, but you know I'm less angry with her,'" Diehl told a group of about 30 community members Thursday night during a public forum at the Lawrence Public Library. "To me that spoke volumes."
Diehl was joined by Rick Trapp, Douglas County sheriff; Kathy Kirk, a Lawrence attorney/mediator; and Marlene Beeson, director of Offender Victim Ministries in North Newton for the forum on "Building Toward Sustainable Crime Prevention."
The idea with restorative justice programs like VORP is to work naturally toward preventing crime in the long-term by building community relationships and connections, Kirk said. Once youth offenders meet their victims and get to know them a little, it's harder to hurt those people.
Although juvenile crime rates in Lawrence and across the country have gone down, Diehl said, the crimes have changed from property crimes, such as criminal damage and theft, to personal crimes like battery.
At the same time, the justice system has developed better ways for dealing with offenders that bring them back into the community instead of sending them to prison, Kirk said.
One of the best ways to tackle prevention, the panelists agreed, is to start teaching children to discuss rather than hit as soon as elementary school. And then once a juvenile offender has gone through the mediation process, Kirk said, that person should be trained to also be a mediator.
"Offenders can be leaders," she said. "They're just not our traditional leaders."
Programs like VORP face challenges in getting adequate funding, panelists said. People pay a lot of lip service to prevention, Diehl said, but the programs aren't seeing the dollars from the legislature.
"We've got to convince the legislature that this is money well-spent," Trapp said.