Possession of Cannabis for

Sale or Supply –

Victim Empathy Programme;
Family Conference


Possession of Cannabis for Sale or Supply

Victim Empathy Programme; Family Conference

Maria was a young woman who lived with her mother and her two younger siblings when she came into contact with the Gardaí. She previously had an interest in sport, but lost motivation over time because of her drug use. She smoked cannabis daily and saw this as normal behaviour. She was arrested and charged with drugs offences, both for her own use and for sale and supply. 

Maria had very little insight into the effects of her offences, both on the public and with regard to her own mother. She could not see that her actions were harmful and that she was a link in a chain of serious harm. Overall, she showed a distinct lack of empathy. Her mother had suffered harm, including as she had paid her debts and received threats that her house would be burnt down if other debts were unpaid. She felt considerable fear in her day-to-day life because of Maria’s behaviour.

Maria received a Probation Bond at the District Court. Her Probation Officer made a number of recommendations for her, including that she attend an educational placement, complete a Victim Empathy Programme and attend a Victim Impact Panel. She was referred to an NGO that delivers restorative justice to assess and support the latter two recommendations.

The case was deemed suitable for the Victim Empathy Programme, as Maria was unaware of the impact of her behaviour. It was felt that the court sentence alone would be unlikely to change her views, whereas a programme that encouraged her to reflect on her thought process and the consequences of her choices might help her reconsider some of her actions. The final decision to refer was made by her Probation Officer who oversaw her case. The main factors were the need to help Maria see the impact of her behaviour on others and the fact that, by this time, a number of other young people had had successful interventions with the NGO’s restorative justice programme and its effectiveness was noted within the Probation Service.

The original referral was for Maria to complete a Victim Empathy Programme (VEP), followed by a Victim Impact Panel (VIP) meeting. Maria participated in 10 VEP sessions with the Restorative Justice Project Officer. The VEP encourages empathy in clients, challenging them to face the harm caused by their offences and to consider what they can do to help put things right. These sessions were instrumental in helping Maria develop her communication skills (she had initially presented as monosyllabic) and, later, her consequential thinking skills. She also gained insight into her susceptibility to peer influences and the impact of her own drug use. 

Over time, it was agreed that a family conference could address the harm done to her mother, and might be more appropriate in this case than a VIP (a meeting in which a surrogate victim tells their story). These decisions are made in a collaborative way with the young person, their parents or carers, the NGO’s Restorative Justice Project Officer and the referring agent (in this case, the Probation Officer).

As mentioned, the VEP part of the process was highly effective in bringing Maria to the point where he could attend a restorative meeting with her mother. It is unlikely that such a meeting could have taken place otherwise. Maria also did three preparation sessions to prepare for the family conference. Her motivation appeared to change over the course of the VEP. Initially, she appeared motivated by fear of criminal implications and the desire to do the “right” thing. As the weeks went, she opened up more and more and her reasons for attending began to appear much more genuine. In addition, she went from finding it difficult to sit down during sessions, to being able to sit, write and complete the work sheets that come with the programme. These emotional and social skills are a fundamental pre-requisite to a restorative meeting between someone who has been harmed and the person who caused them harm.

On a practical level, Maria developed a reoffending prevention plan through the VEP program. This identified triggers at the time of her offending and the changes needed to address these in a post-offending future, including changes to her peer group, looking at her relationship with drugs and alcohol and developing future ambitions, among others.

The conference on the day was seen as a success by Maria, her mother, the Restorative Justice Project Officer and the Probation Officer. Maria’s mother had expected her react adversely to her words, but Maria did not react at all negatively when she heard her mother speak. Even though her discomfort was palpable upon hearing about how her actions had impacted her Mother, she did not interrupt once. Her mother later reported experiencing this as a significant boost.  

Her mother felt that the meeting was the first opportunity she had to say what she wanted to say to Maria. She had been offered the chance to bring a support person to the meeting (an important part of conference preparation for all parties), but did not feel that one was necessary. After the conference, the NGO gave her information and leaflets regarding various support services. Finally, they made a follow up call to debrief her. She confirmed that the process proved helpful in supporting a better relationship between her and her daughter.

Maria, for her part, reported satisfaction with the process. She began to see the significance of her drug use and expressed a desire to reduce her use and eventually give up. She said he no longer sold drugs. She also felt more confident in himself and was hopeful for a brighter future for herself and her boyfriend. At the six-month check-up (a feature of this restorative justice programme), she had not reoffended. 

The NGO’s Restorative Justice Project Officer attended regular supervision with their line manager to review the case and to ensure all decisions made were in line with best practice and in the best interests of Maria and the other parties. The importance of working with other services was a crucial feature helping Maria finish her VEP. For example, the Restorative Justice Project Officer linked in with Maria keyworker from her educational placement, which Maria also completed.

Working in partnership with the Probation Service was key to the successful outcome of the conference. The Restorative Justice Project Officer and Probation Officer communicated regularly to plan the sessions and discuss the format of the conference. Engaging Maria in the VEP prior to the conference allowed Maria the time and space to process her actions and deal with negative emotions prior to the conference. Regular case reviews also took place with Maria to assess the progress of the case and to ensure her voluntary engagement in the process.