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Difference Maker

Jon Wilson helps victims talk with perpetrators - and find closure

When victims go behind bars to talk with those who did them harm, they receive something the legal system doesn't provide: a chance to find real closure, maybe even forgiveness.

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He began working cases in Texas, which operates one of the oldest and largest VOD programs in the country. (At the time, six states offered VOD programs, Wilson says: Today, just over half the state corrections departments in the country support VOD programs.)

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The programs are a delicate subject with state correctional officials. Some report widespread satisfaction among participants, but others refuse to discuss VOD at all.

As the mother of a victim, Connors welcomed a chance to take part in VOD. "Don't take my choice away," she says. "We [victims] are used to getting upset – our whole lives have been upset. But don't take away my choice to meet with the person who caused me harm."

Victims, often women, initiate the VOD process through state victim services agencies. In a series of one-on-one meetings, Wilson helps his clients shape what they want to say to their victimizers. "The iconic story of the victim forgiving the offender is a story that a lot of people like," Wilson says. "But for most victims, forgiveness is the last thing on their minds."

Wilson takes months to help the victims prepare. Their words to the offender must not be said too forcefully: Rail or shout and the offender might withdraw.

"I think Jon doesn't know how good he is at what he does," says Jean Wall, former director of victim services in the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. "He says, 'All I do is listen,' " but he's also doing much more to prepare the victims for the meeting, she says.

The jailed offenders receive no shortened sentences or any kind of credit for their involvement. No dialogue occurs if an offender doesn't fully accept responsibility for the crime. What they do get is an opportunity to think more deeply about what they've done.

Wilson also meets ahead of time with offenders. "When I start out [with an offender], many of them will say, 'I don't even know if I have feelings,' " Wilson says. "Of course they have feelings, but that's how far removed they are from them. Describing their feelings is new to them.

"This is the problem with our system: These guys can do their whole sentence without ever having to think or talk about their crime. We do not insist [that] that person think about what they have done."

Connors's life in an inner-city Boston neighborhood gives her a perspective on the consequences of crime and corrections.

"I was really struck by the waste of ... five young people's lives," she says. "My son was dead. But their lives, and the lives of their families, were also permanently altered.... What became the most sensible thing for me was to have my son's life mean enough to these people so that they could honor and change their own lives." 

In a complex case, two of the four men involved in Joel's death pleaded guilty to various charges, including manslaughter. Connors met the younger of the two with Wilson on two occasions, the first in 2005.

"I told him he had a piece of my forgiveness, and that he could have the rest when he walked out the prison door and caused no more harm," Connors says. "The dialogue helped me be able to say, 'I expect you to live a good life because you still have yours.' "

Adds Wilson: "Their dialogue was amazing in that he was so respectful of her and blown away by her generosity to him, which in some ways he felt he didn't deserve."

Connors also met and talked with the older of the two. She asked him to stand with his parents, her, and Wilson at her son's grave after the offender was released.

"This process has brought a significant measure of peace of mind to me," Connors says, "that has helped me let go of a lot of the anger I had toward those responsible for Joel's murder and toward the system that I feel retraumatized my family and our friends. In this VOD process my son's life mattered; I did not feel like it really did in the court process."

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