The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 17, 2000
July 17, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 41


Psychiatry Prof Gets Victims and Offenders to Talk It Out

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Picture this: You come home to find someone has left graffiti on your front steps. On further investigation, you find you're not alone, as neighbors have been victimized similarly, the perpetrator's initials left as a calling card.

As you stare at the many colored swirls smeared onto your property, you seethe and yearn for just five minutes to give the person who did this a piece of your mind. This very same feeling of indignation is perhaps shared by your fellow victims, not to mention whoever is left with the loathsome task of removing the paint.

Lauren Abramson, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine, understands this anger and its subsequent need for release. To that end, Abramson has provided a forum where victims of wrongful acts can get their desired five minutes--actually longer--to come literally face to face with their offenders.

Lauren Abramson

In 1996, Abramson initiated the Community Conference Program, a unique approach to dealing with criminal and harmful activities by which offenders, victims and their respective supporters participate in a single meeting in order to vent their emotions and find constructive ways to repair the damage. The involved parties design their own satisfactory solution; if all abide by it, no further action is taken.

Among the incidents addressed are quality of life issues, ongoing conflicts among neighbors, trespassing and truancy.

What began on a "piecemeal and volunteer basis" has grown since into a fully sanctioned effort that has earned the support of the Baltimore City Police Department, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Enterprise Foundation and a variety of community, justice and social service organizations. The program is funded by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the Open Society Institute and federal grants. More than 150 community conferences took place in Baltimore during the past two years, and there are currently plans for creating a citywide program. Other municipalities in the state have expressed interest as well.

Abramson, whose specialty is child psychology, says the program, while surely meant to discourage criminal activity, is focused primarily on the emotional well-being of people involved in harmful acts.

"I originally became interested in this community process because I felt that when someone has been harmed, it is an opportunity for all those involved to come together and talk about how they feel and how they were affected," Abramson says. "People end up so enraged and terrorized by things that happen to them, and there is just no outlet for this rage because the courts keep the victim and offenders away from each other. We have gotten so much away from talking with one another."

The program Abramson began in Baltimore has its roots down under in Australia, where a group of her colleagues applied a similar procedure in that country's juvenile justice system. The process was created to allow young offenders to meet their victims and anyone else affected by their actions. For example, in the case of a youth caught trespassing in a zoo, the animal curators and caretakers might be present at the meeting.

Abramson says what makes the program so effective is that offenders--who often think they have hurt either nobody or just their victim--discover their actions have impacted many.

The community conference is a completely voluntary practice involving an incident in which the offender admits to the wrongdoing. For minor offenses, Abramson says, the conference can be a diversion: All parties agree to go through this process instead of sending the case to court.

"We are trying to give an immediate response to harmful activity. That is part of its effectiveness. If your kid had stayed out past curfew, for example, you wouldn't want to ground him six months later. But that is what happens a lot of times in the criminal justice system. It takes too much time," Abramson says.

Abramson's effort began with her "cold-calling" police, juvenile justice and school officials to tell them this process exists. Today, Abramson receives referrals from these same groups.

The meetings take place in the community where the incident happened, usually in a church or a library. Abramson says it typically takes two weeks from finding out about an incident to organizing the meeting.

"It is important to find a date when everyone can attend," Abramson says. "For these meetings to be successful, you want everyone to get a chance to talk."

The atmosphere at these conferences, as one might suspect, often gets pretty heated, especially at the beginning, Abramson says. "But you want that to happen in order to deal with the negative feelings of rage, contempt and fear that keep people in conflict," she says, adding that some conferences have included more than 30 people. "The process is designed to give expression to those negative feelings, so that people can do something different with them. What actually happens, more often than not, is there is a point at the meeting when people say, 'Oh, my God. We are all responsible for this.' "

Abramson's role at these meetings, which last from one to four hours, is as a "neutral facilitator." She encourages people to say what they feel, but if they start to assassinate someone's character, she warns them and prods them to be more constructive.

She does not work alone, however.

Since 1996, Abramson has trained approximately 50 police officers, schoolteachers, clergy and interested citizens to be community conference facilitators.

The meetings end when an agreement has been reached. If the offender abides by the provisions--which could include performing community service, seeking counseling or participating in an after-school program--the victims and the authorities agree the incident will not be pursued any further.

Community conferences are not just for the benefit and satisfaction of the victims, however, but also are intended to help the offender.

Abramson gives the example of a girl caught bringing a knife to school. It was discovered at her community conference that her mother was in substance abuse treatment, her father was in jail, and she was living with her father's girlfriend.

"Basically, she really wanted some attention from her parents," Abramson says. "Everyone at the meeting realized she was in a very tough situation, and we worked out something so that she could see them. Criminal and violent acts don't just happen out of nowhere; there are reasons why people harm other people. So we try to deal with the broader issue."

Sheila Maynor, director of community outreach for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, says Abramson's program creates a positive community dialogue that embraces offenders rather than alienating them.

"It sends the message that we want to help you live in our community, and we don't want to feel afraid of people anymore," says Maynor, who has worked closely with Abramson for the past four years. "This program is not just about the offense but about neighbors getting involved and talking to each other so they can understand the situation. Wounds are healed through this process, it can be so amazing. And for us in juvenile justice, we feel this process helps reduce the number of children who come through our doors."

Philip Leaf, principal investigator of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative in Baltimore City, says these conferences work toward reconstituting community norms, including the healthy verbal interaction between residents. In particular, Leaf points to the lack of discourse between youth and adults prevalent in today's society.

"Simply interacting with one another in this way can improve a person's behavior and his or her perception of the neighborhood," says Leaf, who is a professor of mental hygiene at the School of Public Health.

Abramson says communities that have embraced the program are now offering conferences for common civil nuisances, not just juvenile misdemeanor crimes.

She eventually wants to apply the conference process to more serious offenses, not in lieu of punishment but in addition to court so that victims are allowed a time to heal and tell their offenders how their action affected others.

As for skeptics who think community conferences are giving offenders a free pass, Abramson says this type of confrontation is by no means an easy way out.

"Kids often report that it's much harder to do this, to be face to face with people who they hurt, than to go to court six months later and get a probation," she says. "And from my point of view, the very fact that people are sitting together and talking about their problems makes it a success."

For more information about community conferencing, contact Abramson at 410-955-3945.