Apologies can be difficult. At times, we miss the mark in asking for forgiveness. Sometimes we want to say “I’m sorry” but don’t know how — and other times we say “I’m sorry” but really don’t mean it.

Insincere apologies can cause more harm than good. Demanded apologies feel rehearsed and hollow, causing those forced to apologize to feel resentful. Apologies with words are meaningless when not accompanied with action and behavioral change to repair the harm that was done.

Fortunately, in the area of law and justice, there’s a better approach to forgiveness and atonement: Restorative justice. This approach, increasingly adopted by leaders across the United States and abroad, lays out a set of practices that aim to redirect society’s retributive response to crime.

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Locally, the Restorative Strategies Initiative, housed at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque helps youth who have committed a crime repair the emotional and/or physical harm to others through behavior change and the seeking of forgiveness. It’s a collaborative process that involves both the offender and victim, as well as representatives of various local agencies. Since October, 2020, 36 youth and their families have gone through the restorative process.

When a youth commits a crime, the Dubuque Police Department determines if the case meets the qualifications for the restorative process. Once a case is referred and the offending youth agrees to take responsibility, individual preparation meetings, or “pre-conferences,” are held. A facilitator convenes all impacted parties, such as school personnel, bystanders, police officers and parents, to explain the process, build relationships and invite participation to the restorative conference.

At this restorative conference, all impacted parties gather in a circle to understanding each aspect of the incident, and, importantly, be heard.

All circle conferences are led by trained volunteer facilitators who ask specific questions, such as:

What happened?

What were you thinking at the time?

Who has been affected by your actions?

How have they been affected?

Is there anything you would like to say to the person you harmed?

The facilitator then asks “impact questions” to those harmed so the responsible youth can understand how their behavior has affected others.

This allows for an open dialog to take place.

When everyone has had an opportunity to be heard, the people harmed offer suggestions that help form an “accountability agreement” for the responsible youth. This is key in letting those harmed know there is accountability. Apologies, community service, financial restitution, coping strategies, anger management programs, counseling can all be included in written agreements.

To help ensure completion of the agreement, youth receive follow-up support. If the youth completes the agreement, the charge is dismissed from their record.

The circle gives youth the opportunity to restore the relationships they have affected, and connecting youth to community resources like arts, mentoring, employment or social activities is a vital component to lessening recidivism.

The opportunity to ask for forgiveness and be forgiven can be a life changing experience. It is an opportunity to “make things right.”

During the restorative process, I have witnessed tears of shame and regret, and tears of forgiveness and compassion. What takes place is truly powerful.

Every human makes mistakes, and every human can make things right by repairing the harm that has occurred. To know forgiveness we must know empathy, dignity and respect. It is difficult to admit wrongdoing, take responsibility and learn to not let that same mistake happen again.

Restorative Strategies Program is a profound tool to make that happen.

Jelinske has spent the last 39 years of his career working with youth and families and is director of the Restorative Strategies Initiative, housed at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. His email address is jimjelinske@gmail.com.