Sometimes opening old wounds is the best way to heal them, but in launching its new Victim-Offender Dialogue pilot program, the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC) wants to leave that choice up to the victims. Thus the DOC is not contacting victims to inform them of the new program, which gives crime victims the opportunity to meet face-to-face with their offending other (who may be either in prison or on parole).
Since only victims can initiate such a dialogue, says Montana DOC Public/Victim Information Specialist Sally Hilander, she’s hoping brochures at statewide county victim advocate offices—along with ink like this—will let interested victims know to get in touch. Interested parties can call 888-223-6332.
Since the Feb. 9 program announcement, two victims have come forward—one tied to a homicide, another to a negligent homicide DUI. Hilander says the next step is to see if the corresponding offenders are willing to participate. If so, a trained mediator will be assigned to each case, and a roughly yearlong process of paperwork and interviews will follow to ensure that the motivations of both parties are such that the meeting will not be harmful.
“The offender has to have admitted the crime and owned up to it in a very real manner,” Hilander says.
She adds that before starting this program, the DOC looked at examples of victim-offender programs in Texas, Ohio and Minnesota, where victims felt the experience helped them heal, and offenders often gained a better understanding of the harm they’d caused, presumably becoming less likely to commit future crimes.
“It’s a pretty poignant process,” Hilander says. “The primary benefits to the victim are the opportunity to tell their story to their offender…and to get answers that only an offender could possibly give.”
While victim-offender dialogue programs aren’t uncommon, programs such as Montana’s, which will deal with violent crimes, are newer, Hilander says. Montana’s program is for adult offenders only—not juveniles—who are under DOC supervision, and does not apply to anyone in federal prison or county jails. Also, Hilander says, the DOC is “generally not going to do victim-offender dialogues in cases of domestic violence or stalking because of the particularly coercive nature of those crimes.”