An International Journal

Shame and Shaming in Restorative Justice

by Suzanne M. Retzinger and Thomas J. Scheff 2000

This article is an updated version of our chapter, Strategy for Community
Conference: Emotions and the Social Bond.published in B. Galaway and J.
Hudson (Eds.) Restorative Justice: International Perspectives. 1996.
Criminal Justice Press, Monsey, NY. (Much of the discussion of shaming since
our paper misses our point. The particular way shame is experienced is
critical, not just shame or no shame).

In the last several years, the idea of shaming offenders as an alternative to imprisonment has been widely discussed, and in some jurisdictions, even implemented. Although it is gratifying to see shame being taken seriously, we have serious reservations about most of the discussions and implementations of this idea.

At the heart of the current discussion of shaming offenders is the assumption that shame is a simple emotion that comes in only two sizes: shame or no shame. But actually shame is a complex emotion which comes in many shapes, sizes, and degrees of intensity. Legal scholars and judges who treat shame as merely binary are in a position of a skier who makes no distinction between the many kinds of snow. Just as lack of knowledge of types of snow may lead a skier to disaster, so the crude treatment of shame in current discussions could be a catastrophe.

In this article we propose that the only kind of shame which is uniformly effective in restorative justice is shame that comes from within the offender. Conversely, shame that is imposed without almost always hardens the offenders against reconciliation and restoration of the damage done.

This study evolved from our experience as consultants for a comparative study of crime control being conducted in Australia, USA, and England 21. We observed nine conferences in three Australian cities (Adelaide, Canberra, and Campbelltown), viewed videotapes about conferences, and consulted with police officers, facilitators, and researchers. We came away from this experience with a strong impression of the potential of community conferences for reshaping systems of justice.

Some conferences work better than others. How can the difference between an effective and ineffective conference be explained? The emphasis here is on a new idea: the emotion of shame, which is usually hidden, is a strategic part of the conference process (and in all forms of mediation), and if managed properly, can be crucial for success. Because it deals directly with emotions, the community conference particularly corrects a deficiency of the court-prison system, its failure to attend the victim's needs. Although conferencing is not appropriate for every offender, it could make a great change in the crime crisis even if it was used for only some of the offenders.

The format of community conferences involves a facilitator, the victim and his or her supporters, and the offender and his or her supporters. In the conferences in Australia, the facilitator is usually a police sergeant, but in some jurisdictions, social workers, mediators, or others are used. Unlike most mediation, this format always involves representatives of the larger community participating directly in the outcome. The groups range from only the offender and victim and their parents or other supporters to as many as thirty or more participants.

The involvement of representatives of the community avoids the "white room" effect. In most mediations and in many trials only persons directly in conflict are always present for the whole process. The lack of continuous presence of all interested parties isolates the proceedings from the outside world, and often, therefore, precludes effectiveness. Community conferences closely resemble the form that justice takes in most traditional societies, in which small communities handle their own crimes, rather than exporting the offenders into the hands of legal and correctional professionals.1-2

Offenders who participate in community conferences are selected by the police or the court according to the type of crime and whether or not there are questions of fact to be decided. If there are significant questions of fact, the offender goes to court. But if not, that is, if the offender has confessed to the crime, then he or she may be diverted to a conference. In Australia sex crimes are not diverted to conferencing, but must go to court. Capital crimes also are not diverted in either Australia nor New Zealand. But many other serious crimes are conferenced.

A well-known case in New Zealand involved armed robbery of a convenience store by two juveniles. Both offenders were required to make restitution and do community service. However, the victim, an elderly woman, was so taken with one of the juveniles that she hired him to work for her. The other offender was required to return to Australia to live with his mother (which he apparently perceived as cruel and unusual punishment). The successful outcome of this case was a result of direct communication between offenders and victim, rather than procedures for ascertaining facts, which is the function of the courts.

Why Conferences?

It is widely recognized that the court/prison route is both expensive and not very effective in controlling crime. Evidence is now available that victim-offender mediation is not only cheaper than court and prison, but also more effective in decreasing recidivism.3 One of the great advantages of mediation is that in the confrontation between offender and victim, the offender confesses his crime, is likely to recognize its consequences for the victim, and therefore to accept responsibility for his actions. For the most part, the court/prison system encourages offenders to deny their responsibility, which may be one of the reasons for high rates of recidivism.

However, mediation of offender-victims conflict, even at its most effective, is still only a way of dealing with crimes that have already occurred. Mediation does not directly prevent crime, even though it probably has indirect preventive effects. As an initiative in crime prevention, courses on mediation for young people early in their schooling will be discussed later in this essay. Mediation of offenses in schools prior to police intervention, and developing courses on mediation would be a way of involving educational institutions into a program for dealing with crime and violence. The introduction of mediation courses and community conferences in educational institutions would be another way of bringing more of the community to participate in the control of crime and violence.

Conferencing also may be relevant to the problem of youth gangs, since its extended format allows for bringing together gang members with the families and officials of a neighborhood or community. Such a meeting might lead to discussion, and even resolution, of more fundamental problems than just the particular offense that led to the conference. At the very least some of the conflict in values between the gang and the community could be aired. Such a meeting might be as educational for the community as for the gang.

The conference procedure promises both to reduce the cost of crime control and to make it more effective. To the extent that police forces become involved, conferences could transform their attitudes toward their job and toward offenders, since it allows them to see offenders and victims as human beings. In Australia all of the groups participating in the conference process were highly satisfied, but it was the police who had the highest degree of satisfaction. And because representatives of the community participate directly, conferences might be a significant step toward rebuilding community in our cities.

The conference format typically involves four steps. First, the offender describes his or her offense in detail. Next, the facilitator asks the offender to describe the consequences of the offense, how it affected him, and how it affected the victim and others. Thirdly, the victim and the victim's supporters tell how the crime affected them. This step is often highly emotional, with visible tears and/or anger. The last part of the conference is working out a settlement, one that will be acceptable to both victim and offender.

The last step, the working out of the settlement, is mostly verbal, an informal version of court procedures. But the first three steps all involve crucial non-verbal elements, the exchange of emotions and changes in the relationships between the participants. These processes are virtually absent in the court/prison system. When this non-verbal part of the conference is managed successfully, the new procedure has a powerful advantage over the courtroom.

But conferences are not useful for truth-finding. For crimes in which significant facts are in dispute, there is still no substitute for a court trial. Courts of law are truth machines: the adversarial system and the rules of evidence are necessary for cases in which facts are disputed. The court system is the best mechanism we have for dealing with such conflict. However, if the facts are not disputed -- that is, if there is a confession or a plea bargain -- then the cumbersome and expensive court machinery is unnecessary. A large majority of criminal cases are disposed without trial (either by confession or by plea bargain). The large array of highly paid professional personnel -- judges, attorneys, court reporters, bailiffs, etc. -- need not be involved in the majority of cases.

This is not to say courts and prisons are not necessary. Their very existence leads to many confessions and plea bargains because many if not most offenders confess or plea bargain in order to avoid trial and imprisonment. The existing court system serves many necessary functions. But it no longer need be the first line of defense against crime. The first line could be the conferencing-mediation system I describe here.

Community conferences divert the offender away from the court into an alternative system that utilizes a meeting between victim, offender and other interested parties to reach a settlement of the case. Since 1989, when the conferencing law was passed in New Zealand, more than half of all juvenile offenders have been dealt with in this way, rather than through the courts. The very small nation of New Zealand saves millions of dollars in this way every year, and recidivism rates continue to drop. In Australia conferences are being used both for juvenile and adult crimes. And recently, this format has recently been introduced in several cities in the United States and England.

For undisputed cases (by far the majority) mediation has advantages which the court lacks. The most important strength of mediation is that it allows direct communication between offenders and their victims. With direct communication arises the possibility of community involvement in the disposition of the case. Direct communication also allows for the possibility of negotiation, understanding, confession, reconciliation and forgiveness -- that is, symbolic reparation. But direct communication between offender and victim is ruled out by the court system, and therefore the possibility of symbolic reparation. Since symbolic reparation is much less well understood than the material aspects of reparation, most of what follows is concerned with spelling out how it works.

Reintegrative Shame

A framework for community conferences can found in Braithwaite's concept of re-integrative shaming: enough shaming to bring home the seriousness of the offense, but not so much as to humiliate and harden.4 There was a time in England when thieves were punished by branding their foreheads with the letter "F" (for felon). This punishment actually led to an increase in crime: since the branded felons were excluded from ordinary life, they had no alternative but to become professional thieves and highwaymen. The symbolic branding of the offender is one of the key pitfalls not only of the court/prison system, but also of the community conference: too much shame can be just as destructive as too little.

With juveniles, the problem of too little shame in the conference seldom arises. Even before the first words are spoken, the typical offender is deeply ashamed. If asked to nominate friends for participating in the conference, the young offender will usually recoil: he or she doesn't want friends to know. But with adults, the issue of too little shame comes up occasionally. In the vast problem of drink-driving, the usual offender doesn't feel guilty of any offense. He was simply stopped at a police barricade, and found to have too high a level of blood alcohol. Another difficulty in these cases is the absence of a victim, and therefore of high levels of emotion. In the drink-driving conference I observed in Canberra, guilt was completely denied by the offender and his family. Even the facilitator, a police sergeant, seemed to agree that a real man could hold a six-pack of Australian beer. In these types of cases, creative means of overcoming denial and lack of emotion are sorely needed. But in any and all cases, the effective management of shame dynamics may be the key to a successful outcome.

For conferences to be maximally effective, two separate movements of shame should occur. First, all shame must be removed from the victim . The humiliation of degradation, betrayal and violation that has been inflicted on the victim can be relieved. This step is a key element in the victim's future well-being; it is the shame component, the feeling that the victim has that if only she had acted differently, the crime wouldn't have occurred or would have been less painful, that leads to the most intense and protracted suffering. The usual handling of crimes through courts and imprisonment does very little to relieve the victim of her suffering. Perhaps this is the main reason that many victims and much of the voting public want to visit excessive punishment on offenders, to make them suffer as their victims suffer.

The removal of shame from the victim is accomplished by making sure that all of the shame connected with the crime is accepted by the offender. By acknowledging his complete responsibility for the crime, the offender not only takes the first step toward rehabilitation, but also eases the suffering of the victim. For the shaming of the offender to be reintegrative, however, the facilitator must take care that it not be excessive, as already indicated. Humiliating the offender in the conference makes it almost impossible for him both to accept responsibility and to help remove shame from the victim. Recognition and encouragement of the core sequence of emotions, to be describe below, is the way that an effective facilitator can direct the offender toward rehabilitation and help relieve the victim from suffering.

Braithwaite and his associates have published a series of articles describing conferences and their outcomes, the most extensive being Braithwaite and Mugford.5 The same conference format is also being used in educational settings for dealing with student offenses in Australia and in Europe.6 Using conferences in educational institutions could provide an avenue for strengthening them by enabling them to handle offenses in their own domain. Our observations and consultations in Australia suggest that community conferences is an idea whose time has come.

Material and Symbolic Processes in Crime Control

Material and symbolic reparation occur side by side in community conferences. Material reparation leads to the actual settlement: the undertakings agreed upon by the participants to compensate the victims and society for the offender's crimes - these reparations are almost always restitution or compensation for damage done, as well as some form of community service. The process of arriving at a settlement is verbal, highly visible, and largely unambiguous; it provides the ostensible purpose for the meeting.

Underlying the process of reaching a settlement, however, is the much less visible and more ambiguous process of symbolic reparation. This process involves social rituals of respect, courtesy, apology, and forgiveness, which seem to operate somewhat independently of the verbal agreements that are reached. Symbolic reparation depends on the emotional dynamics of the meeting and on the state of the bonds between the participants. As already indicated. the emotion of shame and the negotiation of shame dynamics, in particular, are of critical importance.

The Core Sequence

For symbolic reparation to occur, two steps seem to be necessary: the offender first must clearly express genuine shame and remorse over her actions. In response, the victim can then take a first step toward forgiving the offender. We call these two steps the core sequence. It is the core sequence that generates repair and restoration of the bond that was severed by the offender's crime. The repair of this bond symbolizes a more extensive restoration that is to take place between the offender and the other participants, the police and the community. When the offender accepts responsibility for his actions, then the stage is set for his re-acceptance into the community: he need not become a habitual offender. Even though the emotional exchange that constitutes the core sequence may be brief -- even a few seconds -- it is the key to reconciliation, victim satisfaction, and decreasing recidivism.

The core sequence, as crucial as it is in itself, also affects the material settlement. Emotional conciliation typically leads directly to a settlement that satisfies the participants -- one that is neither too punitive nor too lenient, but seems more or less inevitable. Such a settlement is a creative response to the situation, and develops naturally out of it. Without the core sequence, the path toward settlement is impeded; whatever settlement is reached does not decrease the tension level in the room, but leaves the participants with a feeling of arbitrariness and dissatisfaction. It is crucially important to give symbolic reparation as much importance as the material settlement. Unless this is done, conferences may turn out, in the long run, to be only marginally better than traditional court practices. Symbolic reparation is the vital element that differentiates conferences from all other forms of crime control.

Community Conferences Observed

We were impressed by the power of the conference format. We consider it to be a justice machine, as contrasted with the court, which is a fact-finding and punishing machine. Somewhat independent of the development of a material settlement, a movement seems to be set in motion that tends toward justice and reconciliation. Nevertheless, we had the feeling in eight of the nine cases we observed of varying degrees of difficulty, tension, and arbitrariness in reaching an agreement. The vital component of symbolic reparation, the core sequence, occurred only once during the formal part of the nine conferences we observed. But in three cases the core sequence seemed to occur immediately after the formal meeting was over.

The exception in which the core sequence occurred during the formal meeting was a case in Adelaide. It involved a large and powerful ethnic juvenile who had stolen from one of his fellow residents in a halfway house. This offender stonewalled through the most of the formal proceedings, giving minimal responses and showing the other participants the top of his head and the soles of his shoes. But when it came time for his apology, he surprised everyone present by looking directly at the victim and making a heartfelt statement that went far beyond the formal requirements. His action drained away the tension in the room, so that the settlement that was reached seemed satisfying and inevitable.

In three of the cases, the vital movement from shame and remorse to forgiveness occurred immediately after the formal end of the conference. In two of the cases we observed the victims in what appeared to be normal conversation with the offenders, as they were awaiting forms to sign. In the third case, the facilitator, who saw the participants out of the building, reported that the victim had patted one of the offenders on the shoulder after he had made a tearful apology to her. These three instances suggest that it might be advantageous to build in delay after the formal end of the conference, such as the signing of a written agreement, which would allow participants to finish unfinished business of symbolic reparation, if it is left unfinished by the formal conference.

Hidden Shame

There is a problem in discussing shame dynamics as a major factor in conferences because of the repression and suppression of shame in Western societies. In Asian and other traditional societies, shame covers a wide variety of feelings, including embarrassment, modesty, and shyness, and more intense and negative feelings such as feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and humiliation. But in Western societies, shame has been narrowed down to only the intense negatives. For that reason, in Western societies, shame leads an underground life.

The idea of hidden shame has been popularized by John Bradshaw.7 Bradshaw has been effective because he comes out of the tradition of Alcohol Anonymous, the one institution in our society that recognizes shame. In AA, many of the exercises implicate shame, as in the listing and acknowledgment of shameful actions by the participants.

In earlier publications, Suzanne Retzinger and I have argued that shame is subject to disguise and hiding in modern societies. 9-12 A key finding in our work is that one can feel shame about shame, and shame about that, and so on, without end. The idea that one can be ashamed of being ashamed leads to the concept of continuous loops of shame. This kind of stigmatizing shame by self and/or others leads to exclusion of offenders from the community.

In order to manage shame beneficially, it is necessary to recover the positive, reconciliative uses of normal shame from the maws of repression and silence, and to relearn its value as a powerful emotion for forming community. "The very fact that shame is an isolating experience also means that if one can find ways of sharing and communicating it, this communication can bring about particular closeness with others...."13 The idea expressed in this passage is crucially significant for community conferences: if the offender can come to the point of "sharing and communicating" his shame instead of hiding or denying it, the damage to the bond between the offender and the other participants may be repaired.

The nature of the formal apology in community conferences provides a good example of the crucial part that acknowledging shame plays in the drama of conflict and reconciliation. Formal apologies are an important step in all forms of victim-offender mediation. The chances that conferences produce healing and repair are significantly linked to the quality of the apology, its genuineness.

But what is a genuine apology? One formulation is that not only one must say that one is sorry, but one must feel sorry. 14 But what are the emotions involved in feeling sorry? As the word sorry itself indicates, one of the emotions is sorrow or grief ; a genuine apology involves sadness. But the most important emotion in a genuine apology is probably shame: the offender must be ashamed of what he did, and this shame must be visible to the person receiving the apology. It is this shame and other emotions, such as grief, that allows a preliminary bond to be formed between offender and victim, because the offender's visible expression of emotions allows the victim to see the offender as a human being.

Another reason that recovering the actual breadth of the shame concept is important for the conference process is because shame often spreads among all of the participants. The offender will be ashamed because she stands publicly accused of wrongdoing. The offender's supporters will be ashamed because of their relationship to her. The victim will be ashamed in the sense of feeling betrayed, violated, and/or impotent. The victim's supporters, in so far as they identify with her, will share this kind of shame. If all this shame is disguised and denied, it inhibits the participants from thinking clearly (shame results in fluster) and repairing the bonds between them, and therefore interferes with symbolic reparation.

It is therefore an issue of great importance for the operation of conferences to distinguish between pathological and normal shame. Braithwaite proposed effective crime control requires normal (re-integrative) rather than pathological (spiraling) shame.4 By paying close attention to the particular way shame is manifested, it is possible to distinguish, moment by moment, between the two forms of shame as they occur in the conference.

According to Retzinger, manifestations of normal shame, although unpleasant, are brief, as little as a few seconds.10 Shame, anger, and other related emotions that persist continuously for many minutes are pathological. Shame is a highly reflexive emotion, which can give rise to long-lasting feedback loops of shame: as already mentioned, one can be ashamed of being ashamed, and so on, around the loop, resulting in withdrawal or depression. Or one may be angry that one is ashamed, and ashamed that one is angry, and so on around that loop. Furthermore, shame-anger loops can occur between, as well as within, participants. Indignation can be contagious, resulting in mutual and counter-indignation. Both individual and social emotional loops can last indefinitely. Continuous, relentless emotions (such as continuing embarrassment, indignation, resentment and hatred ) are always spirals.

Shame also plays a crucial role in normal cooperative relationships, as well as in conflict. Shame and embarrassment are normal signals of a threat to any social bond. If the other person is too close in some way, one feels invaded or exposed. If the other is too far, one feels invisible or rejected. Cues to shame and embarrassment (such as blushing, stammering, speaking too softly, looking away, and so on) allow one to know where one stands in a relationship. Similarly, pride signals a secure bond. Shame is the emotional cognate of a threatened or damaged bond, just as threatened bonds are the source of shame. Normal shame is an essential building block of relationships and of community.

If, as Goffman 15 and others have argued, normal shame and embarrassment are an almost continuous part of all human contact, we can see why the visible expression of shame by the offender looms so large in symbolic reparation. When we see signs of shame and embarrassment in others, we are able to recognize them as human beings like ourselves, no matter the language, cultural setting, or context. The central role of shame in human contact has long been recognized in the scientific-humanist tradition, as expressed by Darwin, Nietzsche, Sartre, and many others. To understand the way that successful conferences run on normal, reintegrative shame, one needs to overcome the view of shame as a disgraceful emotion, to be denied and hidden from self and other.

Paths to Symbolic Reparation: Reframing Indignation and Eliciting Painful Emotions

In order for the offender to clearly express genuine shame and remorse, the trigger for symbolic reparation, she needs to be in a state of "perfect defenselessness."16, 17 At the critical moment, the offender needs to lay herself completely at the mercy of the victim, uncovering her repressed emotions. The victim also has a role to play, being aware of the offender's feelings. Since in modern societies states of perfect defenselessness and keen awareness are unusual even in private, much less in a public gathering, this is a task of some magnitude. How can the offender and victim be encouraged to overcome the effects of repression in the presence of the participants whose own emotions are highly repressed?

The principal paths seem to be:

1. Reframing displays of aggressive emotions such as anger and moral indignation against the offender, and/or

2. Eliciting a vivid expression of the painful emotions caused by the offender's crime, by at least one of the participants, usually a victim or a supporter of the victim.

These two paths to symbolic reparation are related; as will be seen below, reframing aggressive emotions can lead to vivid expressions of painful emotions.

Moral Indignation

We understand moral indignation to be a particular manifestation of shame and anger. The victim, especially, is likely to feel the shame of helplessness, impotence, betrayal, and/or violation in response to the offense against her. However, this shame is usually not acknowledged, but masked by anger. Repetitive and relentless anger at the offender is an effective defense against feeling shame. It is unacknowledged shame that drives repetitive episodes of moral indignation. If this shame can be acknowledged (along with other hidden emotions such as grief and fear), anger and moral indignation directed toward the offender will be relatively short-lived and constructive.

The aggressive emotion that dominated the conferences we observed was moral indignation by the victim, the victim's supporters, and, when he or she was present, the arresting officer. It was occasionally flagrant, but more often it was subtle. Skill and sensitivity on the facilitator's part are required to detect and rechannel it. The anger component is usually visible; in repetitive moral indignation, it seems to mask the underlying shame. This shame is carefully hidden, not only from others, but also from self. The feelings of anger, violation, helplessness, and impotence that haunt victims are indications of hidden shame.

The shame component, the main emotional freight carried by indignation, is hidden even in dictionary definitions of the word indignation, which emphasize only anger. To find the shame component, one has to go to the root word, indignity, which means a humiliating insult to one's self-respect.

How is one to detect self-righteous indignation? One study hinted at the key indicators when it described "helpless anger" (shame-anger) in one subject, Rhoda, directed toward her aunt, Editha: "...she [Rhoda] is so choked with emotion at the unreasonableness of Editha's behavior that she cannot begin to describe it accurately."18 The study describes the indicators of helpless anger, using terminology such as "helpless exasperation" and "sarcastic exasperation." Rhoda's language implies that Editha's "violation of normal standards is so gross to the point of straining our verbal resources."

This description of "helpless anger," and especially "exasperation," comes close to what we saw as self-righteous indignation in the conferences. The helplessly angry person feels unable to describe the enormity of the other's trespass, not because she is particularly unable, but that the trespass feels so overwhelming that it would defy description by anyone. The feeling that an emotion is so unmanageable is a clue to the repression of the occluded emotions that drive the conscious one.

Furthermore, the use of "sarcastic" points toward a second dimension of indignation. The subject seems to feel that the enormity of the trespass is so glaring that her audience should (but doesn't) feel as strongly about it as she does. The sarcasm is directed not only at the offender, but also at the audience that is not as riled about the offense as they should be. Protracted indignation interferes not only with mutual identification (a secure bond) between victim and offender, but also between the victim and the rest of the participants. To the extent that indignation, a shame-anger loop, pervades a conference, it isolates the participants from one another.

This analysis suggests a central point about the management of indignation: if it is to be discharged, the expression of anger should be reframed so that the underlying emotions (shame, grief, fear) can surface and be discharged. Unless shame is acknowledged, expressions of indignation are likely to continue without relief.9-12 The detection and reframing of moral indignation is a crucial component of effective conferences.

The crucial point about moral indignation is that when it is repetitive and out of control, it is a defensive movement. It involves two steps: denial of one's own shame, followed by projection of blame onto the offender (I am not dishonorable in any way, whereas the offender is entirely dishonorable). For the participants to identify with the offender, they must see themselves as like her rather than unlike her (There but for the grace of God go I). Moral indignation interferes with the identification between participants that is necessary if the conference is to generate symbolic reparation. Thus, uncontrolled, repetitive moral indignation is the most important impediment to symbolic reparation and reintegration. On the other hand, to the extent that it is re-channelled, it can be instrumental in triggering the core sequence of reparation.

Shame/rage spirals can take forms other than moral indignation. Forms such as self-righteous rage19 or narcissistic rage20 are not often seen in conferences. These other forms are likely to be more intense than indignation, and more likely to lead to verbal or physical assault. Compared to these other forms, the unacknowledged shame in moral indignation is close to the surface, and more easily accessed by skillful questioning.

Two types of moral indignation: self-righteous indignation

In the cases I witnessed, moral indignation appeared in two forms, self-righteous indignation, the more flagrant form, and moral superiority, the more covert form. Self-righteous indignation was expressed most frequently and relentlessly by the victims, but also in some cases by the victim's supporters and even the offenders' supporters, especially by the offenders' parents. This emotion was expressed not only by what was said, but more strongly, by how it was said, and in what context.

For example, the victims in a fraud case in Canberra bombarded the offender with demands for material reparation (one demanded the return of money, the other that the offender help protect the victim's reputation). Not only their words but also their manner conveyed the victim's self-righteousness, their feelings of betrayal by the offender, their distrust of him, and feelings of helplessness and anger. The repetition of their demands especially, in spite of the responses by the offender, the crying of the offender's wife, and the attempts by the facilitator and the investigating officer to intervene, clearly signaled the victims' intense indignation. The repetition of a request, when it disregards the other's responses, is at best challenging and in many cases actually insulting. Such repetition is disrespectful and rejecting: it implies that the indignant person is not listening to the offender, or that the offender is not listening to the indignant person, or, more potently, that the offender is lying.

Self-righteous indignation was also expressed frequently and intensely in a break-in and theft case in Campbelltown. In this case, not only the victim but also the parents of the offenders expressed indignation. In the case of the victim, her flagrant indignation took the form of incredulity; she was incredulous not so much that the crime could have been perpetrated against her, but that the offenders were capable of such a deed. As for the parents, they could hardly believe that their children could be involved, that is, that the conference involved them (the parents). Similarly, the parents in a Canberra shoplifting case also expressed incredulity that their son could be a thief, but indirectly. Most of their comments seemed geared to distance them from the offender, their son, because they saw themselves as hardly the kind of people to be spending time in a police station. Incredulity, hardly being able to believe what has happened, is a highly visible sign of self-righteous indignation.

Moral Superiority and Overt Threats

A second, more covert form of moral indignation is moral superiority. It occurs frequently in the form of lecturing to the offender, particularly by police. The arresting officer in the cases we saw in Adelaide always gave some form of moral instruction to the offender. This tactic signals the moral superiority of the instructor to the offender, and therefore threatens the bond of mutual identification between them. In one case, in Campbelltown, even the facilitator joined the chorus; he gave the offenders a lengthy lecture on the nature of conscience.

The lecture usually contained a threat as well, which also disrupted rather than built the social bond. Threat implies that the offender is not responsible, but needs an external goad to behave. When there is mutual identification, threat is unnecessary. In Adelaide the arresting officer always threatened the offenders with court. In the break-in and theft case we observed there, at first the arresting officer was highly respectful toward the offender, and solicitous of his rights. But later in the conference, perhaps because she felt the offender had not sufficiently expressed remorse, she became very emotional, lecturing the offender on how "stupid" and "silly" it was to break the law, and on the certainty of strong punishment. At this point her outburst showed self-righteous indignation as well as feelings of moral superiority.

In the same conference, the victim of the break-in expressed moral indignation, and perhaps a sense of violation by her repetitive description of each of her material losses, and of the keys and locks for her house. The discussion of finding the stolen key, the problem of changing the locks and its costs went on at some length. Along with her discussion of the material losses, it absorbed a significant proportion of the conference time.

In this instance, and in several other cases, a skilled facilitator might have been able to interrupt the display of indignation by interpreting it in terms of a sense of betrayal, helplessness, loss, and violation. In the Canberra fraud case, however, it would have taken a great deal of skill and self-confidence on the part of the facilitator to be able to stem the torrent. Although it may be necessary to allow a preliminary outburst of indignation at the offender, it is important that the facilitator be trained to detect repetitive waves of indignation, and to be skillful enough to reframe them. To be able to manage most of their cases successfully, facilitators need to be trained not only in procedures, but also in detecting and reframing covert emotions.

The Hidden Shame Component in Indignation

In a case of school vandalism, the moral indignation of one of the victims was so indirect as to be difficult to detect and manage unless the facilitator were highly skillful. It is worth looking at this instance in some detail, since it illustrates the way in which shame that underlies indignation can be hidden not only from others and from one's self. The victim, Fred Johnson (a pseudonym), was a middle-aged teacher at the school that was vandalized. The vandalism consisted of defamatory statements about the teachers spray-painted on the walls of the school. Johnson was the principle victim, since he had three defamations, each of the other teachers having only one. To make clear the nature of the insult, it will be necessary to quote the actual defamations:

Johnson is an old folgie [fogey?].

Mr. Johnson sucks dick with Mr. Smith [another teacher].

Mr. Johnson is a bald-headed cocksucker.

The author(s) of these particular defamations was unknown. The offender admitted to spray-painting only one statement, which intimated a homosexual relationship between two students. Under repeated questioning, the offender maintained that he had no knowledge of who did the graffiti about the teachers.

From the beginning of the conference, the pattern of Mr. Johnson's behavior suggested unacknowledged shame. When she introduced him, the facilitator was puzzled by his presence, since she had understood he was to attend only if the principal couldn't be there to represent the school. Mr. Johnson explained that he had decided to attend along with the principle because he wanted to comment also.

When his turn to speak as a victim came, Mr. Johnson first denied injury to himself. He explained that teaching as long as he had, "this kind of slander was water off a duck's back." He further denied injury by explaining, somewhat defiantly, that, contrary to what students think, teachers stick together; one of his fellow teachers had phoned him about the defamations so that he wouldn't be surprised by them. Like his presence, there was a gratuitous element to these comments. They seemed somewhat unnecessary, and were carefully addressed to the air rather than to any person.

Having denied injury, he then launched into an indirect verbal assault on the offender. He stated that when he counsels students, he tells them that such slander is cowardly. Johnson was insulting the offender, but only indirectly, since he was calling him a coward only by implication. He repeated this insinuation three more times, saying that students who resort to such actions are cowards, underhanded, have no guts. When it was her turn, the offender's mother felt called on to refute the charge of cowardice, by saying that her son couldn't be a coward, because he plays rugby!

Mr. Johnson 's words and manner suggest a shame/rage spiral. He seems to have been humiliated by the defamations, but could not acknowledge this feeling even to himself. A statement such as "I was upset and offended by the graffiti" would have been a step toward acknowledgment of shame. Instead, rather than express his shame and anger, he denied injury and attacked his putative attacker with an indirect verbal assault on the offender.

The basic problem with indignation, a kind of impotent anger (shame/anger loop) is that if it is repeated enough it can damage the potential bond between the victim and the offender. The torrent of criticism and disrespect from the victim or other indignant participant almost surely gives rise to defensiveness in the offender, the very opposite of the goal of symbolic reparation, since it requires that the offender open himself to be able to express true remorse. Moreover, since the offender usually displays "cool" from the beginning, his behavior unfortunately triggers defensive anger in the participants, and sets up, therefore, a vicious circle. This cycle of insult and counter-insult is counterproductive; it is the basis for destructive and unending conflict.9-12

Perhaps the basic job of the facilitator is to ask questions which cut through the defensive stance of the participants. In this way a successful conference maintains balance between anger and respect for the offender, between shaming and reintegration. Patient, respectful questioning by the facilitator could have helped Mr. Johnson acknowledge some of his feelings of being ridiculed and insulted, and thereby might have eased the attack on the offender.

Another way of helping the offender to acknowledge his responsibility would be to enlarge upon the formula used in Canberra when separating the offense from the offender. For example, if the air is thick with indignation, after condemning the offense, the offender's supporters might be asked to name some of the offender's good traits. The facilitator could then summarize their positive comments, to bring the distinction between the bad offense and the good offender into high relief. This tactic would need to be handled with some skill and discretion to avoid antagonizing the victim's camp.

Such initial support might make it possible for the offender to remain emotionally open in the face of moral indignation. Perhaps if a space of this kind were created initially for the offender, she would become less defensive whatever the participants' emotional responses.

Encouraging the expression of painful emotions

A complement to the reframing of moral indignation is another tactic, encouraging the expression of painful emotions. This idea was developed by Terry O'Connell, a police sergeant whose work in a predominately aborigine community was instrumental in bringing conferencing to Australia. The offender may express genuine shame and remorse, even if she has defended herself against moral indignation, under certain conditions. If the victim or supporters of the victim clearly express painful emotions (such as grief) that were caused by the offender's crime, the offender may be caught off guard and identify with that pain, to the point that her defenses are breached.

Under these conditions, she will then show the shame and remorse that are necessary to generate the beginning of forgiveness in the victim. In an example already mentioned above, the victim was highly indignant during the whole formal conference. Yet, afterward, when the offender offered her a tearful apology, she patted him on the shoulder, indicating identification and a step toward forgiveness. This entire episode took less than a minute, yet it was probably the most important event in the entire conference.

O'Connell gives emotionality pride of place in the conference process. The chief focus of the facilitator in organizing and presiding should be setting the conditions that will allow painful emotions to be felt, expressed and shared by the victim, the offender, and other participants. However, it is important to realize that the kind of emotions that O'Connell is referring to are primarily the painful emotions, such as grief and shame, and not the aggressive ones, such as rage and anger. The goal of the facilitator is to encourage the former and rechannel the latter. As already indicated, if aggressive emotions are interrupted and reframed, they may give rise to the expression of the painful emotions that are needed to trigger the core sequence.

The skills needed to successfully facilitate a conference involve detecting and negotiating emotional and relational states, a far cry from the traditional concerns in police recruitment and training. In fact, these skills are unusual in our civilization as a whole. Even in the training of psychotherapists and mediators, behavioral and cognitive skills are emphasized, to the detriment of emotional and relational skills. To the extent that police officers and other facilitators develop the understanding and skill needed for managing conferences, to that extent they will begin to transform prevailing police attitudes and the relationship between law enforcement and the community. This transformation, along with building and empowering the community, are the three great goals of the conferencing movement. Therefore, the use of conferences and the training of facilitators for them could represent a powerful force for reducing crime and changing our society.


We have urged that community conferences be tried as an alternative to courts and prisons in those case where offenders have confessed. This approach promises to be a more effective, and certainly a less expensive way of managing these types of cases, easily a majority of offenders. This approach may also have many desirable side-effects, such as helping to rebuild community and transform police attitudes.

However, community conferencing is only an indirect approach to crime prevention. To attack the problem close to its roots, it may be also desirable to introduce mediation and conferencing into elementary and secondary schools and colleges. The first step would be to develop classes based on mediation ideas and skills. The direct effect of such classes would be to give students skills in negotiation and peace-making. These skills would serve students their entire lives, enabling them to communicate and negotiate their needs, and settle their differences peacefully, avoiding subterfuge and violent confrontation. At the senior high school and college levels, the classes might be called Mediation and Communication or other similar titles.

When taught properly, mediation courses are highly dramatic and would probably be popular. Through the use of role-playing, students would exchange roles, playing the parts of the victim, offender and facilitator alternately. In this way, they would learn to view disputes from different viewpoints, not only their own. This experience, of understanding the world from others' points of view, is an important building block of community.

The idea of mediation might be too sophisticated for elementary and junior high school students. But similar ideas could be introduced into a course dealing with family relationships: the skills of negotiation, communication, and compromise with one's parents, siblings and schoolmates. These classes could begin early in elementary school, perhaps in the fourth or fifth grades. In such classes, students would learn valuable lessons : that talking has many advantages over fighting, and that most human relationships can be enhanced by negotiation and compromise.

A parallel step in education would be to use family and community conferences for responding to student offenses and misdemeanors. In this way many offenses could be handled by the schools themselves, without calling in police. Schools in Australia, New Zealand, and England have already had considerable experience with this procedure.6 Participation in conferences of this kind would allow students mediation experience with real offenses, and so would supplement their course work in mediation classes.

The combination of the use of conferencing to mediate settlements in criminal offenses, and the establishment of conferencing and mediation classes in education would probably exert influence each on the other. Students who have learned mediation skills, for example, might less likely to resort to crime. If they are involved in a community conference, either as offender or as victim, they would also have learned to better participate in it. The spreading of conferencing and mediation skills throughout our society could direct us away from excessive coercion and punishment in a more cooperative direction.


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