Building a new Juvenile Restorative Justice Programme in Colombia
Experiences with structural inclusion
by Simona Bashour Dengler
When I was writing my Master’s thesis on the subject of International Peace Education in Prison in 2017, I came across the work of Prison Fellowship Colombia (PFC) and decided to give up my work as a probation officer in Germany for the time being, so that I could go to Colombia and get to know this charitable organisation at first hand. After a six-month internship, I decided to stay a little more and join the development service. My foremost motivation for that was to strengthen the cooperation between NGOs, PFC and the Colombian government.
So, after completing a training course in restorative justice at the Office of the Attorney General in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, I was entrusted with the task of setting up a victim offender mediation (VOM) pilot project for young people in Medellin. The idea came from the president of the NGO, which had been communicated to the Ankla Foundation in Sweden already in 2017. They decided to finance the project through money to the Swedish Mission Council (SMC) (which handles governmental state tax finances from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)), with the expectation that it would be taken over by the Colombian state after three years. In general, there were few content specifications around how the project should look. After analysing the actual situation in Colombia concerning restorative practices, we designed a project plan together and had regular meetings with all kinds of stakeholders in the following weeks and months.
Following this consultation, we realised that very few victim offender mediation schemes for young people had been created, even though the legal basis existed already. Many lawyers were afraid to apply it because of the lack of programmes which could support victims as well as the offenders during the process.
From the outset, we felt that it was important to establish a network of national and international stakeholders in order to be able to learn from their experience. As the newly assembled team for the youth programme (two social workers, one psychologist, one lawyer, one assistant, and me as a coordinator and the only non Colombian), we began by organising some round table discussions with decision-makers, including civil servants in the Youth Office and the Office of the General Attorney, judges, lawyers and university professors in the fields of law, psychology, and social work. It became clear that, although there was great interest on all sides, local resources (mainly money and personnel) were lacking for effective cooperation in this area.
Thanks to the development service and support from SMC (through the Ankla Foundation), we were able to find the necessary resources, which was very much appreciated by the participants, especially the Office of the General Attorney. Since all the participants came from different disciplines, we organised a course which would bring us and other interested parties to the same level of knowledge and then create a forum for discussion. This was useful in the sense of inclusion to attract more stakeholders from all kinds of positions and organisations, because it was considered a privilege being able to attend a training course for free. The more the project became known, the greater the possibility it had to become the contact point for new cases in restorative practices. Another inclusive strategy was to attend, as a team, at as many as possible conferences and events in all societal levels, for example, events organised by schools, universities, state, national and international organisations like the Youth Welfare Office or the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). There, we presented our concept and participated in podium discussions.
In our team, we quickly drew up our own guidelines and concluded an agreement with the local public prosecutor for a pilot project. The goal was that juvenile offenders in the investigation stage who completed a VOM programme successfully would avoid trial and therefore imprisonment. The first four pilot cases successfully completed the 3–4 months process which we had designed and which entailed the negotiation of an out-of-court settlement. In addition, we regularly came together in small Round Table Meetings with the main stakeholders, like the assigned Attorney and the Youth Welfare Office, constantly to review, assess and improve our concept of VOM through these pilot cases.
Photo of the team. Back row: Viviana, Carlos; in the middle: Rober, Levis, Jessica, Simona; at the front: Yuly, Lina, Daniel.
Our VOM concept consisted of several elements.
- We focused on the main principles of Restorative Justice which are Responsibility, Reparation and Resocialisation.
- We worked on four levels (personal, family, group and contextual interventions) to offer an holistic programme for both victims and offenders.
In sum, the pilot project went very well, we came out with good results because we saw the positive impacts for both offenders and victims.
Case Study example: M
There was a young offender M who had assaulted his former girlfriend. M participated with motivation in the programme and attended once a week, sometimes together with his mum, in a workshop or individual session. He recognised then his responsibility and his guilt and wanted to make something good again. First, he wrote an apology letter to his ex-girlfriend and asked to meet her. But she went through a more complex process, in company with her dad and our psychologist, and refused to meet him. So, together with our team, the young boy M organised as a reparation act a campaign where he distributed flyers at schools to warn and talk to other pupils about violence against women. He was unable to restore his broken relationship with his ex-girlfriend but he contributed something positive and authentic to the society.
In order to be assigned further cases, more had to be done to make the process known and we also had to apply for a government-recognised licence. We were tasked with giving several lectures at in-service training courses for prosecutors and judges, because many of them had barely come across the concept of VOM in the past. We were then invited to national and international congresses to present the initial results there as well. We came away with valuable materials from experiences in the field of VOM in Spain, Argentina, the USA and other countries and of course, we regularly reported to our project coordinator, Daniel Yttermalm, from the Ankla Foundation.
So, for structural inclusion the project needs to be generally relevant and of public interest. In our case, we knew that the Ministry of Justice was working on a restorative practices-manual and they are looking for practitioners with experience. Therefore, we decided to get on board and apply for the license.
Our main goal was to implement something new and include it in the local Colombian society. Initially we tried to gain fast access to important stakeholders and then tried to quickly hand over the programme management to a local colleague out of the same department of the NGO, so the sense of ownership was ensured and consequently the project could become structurally included into the Colombian culture.
Our project manager from Ankla Foundation, Daniel Yttermalm, gives the following review:
“The results after two years look good even though the licence isn´t in place yet and the pandemic made it a bit difficult. A specific agreement with another stakeholder, a social organization, who already has a license, were made in order to be able to work with cases from them. So they are outsourcing a restorative justice programme, because this is what is missing in their schedule. And through a flexible orientation towards digitalisation the interventions have been held successfully although the pandemic. There are different kinds of cases in the project; the ones from the social organisation (possible impact on legal process) and the ones called ‘daily conflicts’ (no impact on the legal process). The results after two years are: 7 authority cases, 26 daily conflicts.”
The project is now in the third and last year and one of the main goals and sustainability strategy is that the project enters into ordinary operations within PFC and are financed through the Colombian government. The project will apply for a no-cost extension for further six months as there are funds left from year one. A ring on the water for the project is that Ankla Foundation and UNODC are working on a common agreement in order to develop both their work in decreasing criminality.
Simona Bashour Dengler is a Probation Officer and Conflict Mediator in Stuttgart, Germany
For more information see Confraternidad Carcelaria de Colombia or contact Daniel Yttermalm: +46 708 553580