Rape victim embraces attacker at restorative justice session
A woman who was kidnapped, taken into a bush and repeatedly raped later looked her attacker in the eyes, hugged him and told him, "I wish you well".
It's one of what restorative justice facilitator Jackie Katounas calls the goosebump moments.
"Little snippets of miracles," she says over the phone from her Blenheim home.
"Absolutely, it's what keeps me going. It's just little things like that and you just stand there with your mouth wide open.
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"The generosity of spirit in people never fails to blow me away."
Katounas, 59, has been a champion of restorative justice – the opportunity for offenders and their victims to meet – after her own experience with one of her victims led to her turning her own life around.
Two decades ago, she spent a lot of time in prison having become addicted to heroin.
She amassed more than 100 convictions and spent time in a maximum-security jail.
Her last crime was receiving stolen goods from a publican.
She felt horribly guilty and later called him to tell him so.
"I asked if I could come and see him and he agreed. I apologised for my part, and offered to get all his stuff back and he extended his hand of forgiveness to me.
"For the first time in my life I was aware that I was hurting people."
Later she saw an ad in the paper for what was, in the early 1990s, the infancy of restorative justice.
A local pastor wanted to talk about the "peaceful pathway" to justice, and Katounas thought he sounded like a "bloody idiot".
She attended the conference to tell him so, but found herself resonating with what she heard, having recently apologised to the publican.
It ignited a long-standing drive to become involved in the social justice sector.
Katounas later began working for Kim Workman, who has long been heralded as the country's leading restorative justice champion.
In 2005 the pair won an international award for their work.
Not everyone is a fan of restorative justice.
It can be seen as an easy way for offenders to get more lenient sentences. In the worst case scenarios, the meetings between offenders and their victims can go awry.
Recently released figures shows less than a quarter of referred pre-sentence restorative justice conference are taking place.
Of the 12518 referrals made between 2015 and 2016, only 2981 meetings went ahead – just 23 per cent.
The Ministry of Justice, which released the numbers under the Official Information Act, said there were a variety of reasons why the conferences didn't end up taking place.
The data showed that in more than 4000 cases, the victim chose not to go ahead with the meeting.
In 700 cases, the offender declined.
"It's not for everybody," Katounas admits.
"People think the offenders are doing it for brownie points, [or] to look good for the judge. Often the reason can be that victims are just too damaged or to hurt to be able to even think about meeting with the offender. They somehow view it as giving the offender something, and I'm not sure why.
"Often victims have said to me, 'it's been so long, I'm over it, and I don't want to rehash old wounds', so there can be a variety of reasons [for the low take up rate], but in my experience it's because victims don't want to engage in the process."
Changes to the Sentencing Act in 2014 meant all cases that met certain criteria, including a guilty plea from the offender, would be considered for restorative justice.
Offenders can get a sentence reduction if they have a meeting with their victims.
The Ministry of Justice championed its use, with community services general manager Polly O'Brien describing it as giving victims "a stronger voice in the criminal justice system" and "holding offenders to account for what they have done".
The law change had resulted in more conferences being referred, and the majority of victims reported a positive restorative justice session, she said.
Katounas works with offenders and victims in post-sentence restorative justice meetings, typically for the most serious crimes including rape and murder, and often years and years after the offending.
"Very often [the offenders] have spent a long time in prison and they've done every programme possible and they get to a place of understanding or empathy. I don't know if it's a touch of guilt, or if it's just part of the process, or the satisfaction, but it's not entered into lightly [by the offender].
"It's very scary for them as well. They always feel that they're going to be confronted with hatred and rage and abuse."
Does that ever happen?
"It never does."
Enough ground work goes into the sessions to ensure both parties are feeling comfortable and that there are enough support systems in place during the meeting, she says.
Katounas has many, many stories she could share – the snippets of miracles.
There was a woman who flew over from Australia to meet her brother's young murderer in prison.
"She has such a generous spirit. She said to him, 'you and I are connected for life. Don't let my brother's life be for nothing.' All the hairs on the back of my arm stood up."
Then there was the rape victim, who had a polite meeting with her attacker and later returned to the room to embrace the man and wished him well.
"He was just stunned," Katounas said.
"He became quite emotional."
Youth and families organisation 4theKidz chair Carolyn Cragg has observed restorative justice sessions between young people and their victims, and believes it should be mandatory in cases of youth crime.
She recalled one young man being given a pen and paper by his victim. He later used it to write a rap song about how kind the victim had been to him.
He had since turned his life around, Cragg said.
When she was burgled by a group of young people she was disappointed when a restorative justice session was turned down by one of the people involved.
"I would have said similar to what happened with [the young rapper]. How can we get your life on the straight and narrow?"
Of all the sessions she'd been involved in she believed about 60 to 70 per cent had a positive result, where the offender has acknowledged their wrong doing and apologised for the harm they'd caused.
However in some instances the meetings hadn't gone well, and the offender had used the meeting to disempower the victim again, Cragg said.
Those cases were rare.
"For the victims I feel it gives them some sense of power and control back in their life and they've been able to say, 'you did this to me' and 'it's not OK' and for the perpetrator, they can then move forward."
- Between 2015 and 2016 there were 12518 referrals for restorative justice
- 2981 conferences took place
- Auckland and Christchurch district courts made the most referrals and had the most conferences
- Auckland referred 1350 cases, resulting in 250 conferences. Christchurch referred 1586, resulting in 247 conferences
- 4148 victims declined a conference
- 700 offenders declined