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Apology letters

Nov 30, 2011

by Lynette Parker:

As I was browsing through Twitter feeds I saw a comment about an offensive apology letter. Of course I clicked the link to read the letter. I had to agree with Victim Support UK; the letter was offensive and disrespectful. I also agreed with the Twitter comment from Why Me?, “The problem with That Letter is there was no preparation first.”

From the article, it appears that the letter was a part of an “Intensive Supervision and Surveillance” order given to the young offender. Thankfully, the letter wasn’t sent to the victim. However, it did show one of the paradoxes of apology letters. On the surface, asking an offender to write an apology letter seems like a good idea. The very least they owe the victim is an apology. Yet, ordering someone to apologise doesn’t necessarily mean that the person feels the need to apologise or understand that he/she hurt someone with the behaviour. As Why Me? said, ordering a letter doesn’t allow for preparation or the journey of discovery that comes through restorative justice programmes.

As a restorative conferencing facilitator, I’ve seen lots of apology letters. These have resulted from restorative conferences between offenders (both juvenile and adult) and community representatives. This result is always through consensus of all the participants. Usually, the offender has stated that he/she wants to apologise. We never impose on any party in the restorative conference and I’ve seen offenders refuse to write such a letter. However, when there is an agreement for an apology letter it tends to come from the offender realising that the criminal behaviour has truly caused harm.

At the same time, we provide guidelines for writing an apology letter. This grew out of experiences with people who wanted to write a letter but weren’t sure what to say or how to go about saying it. The guidelines simply say to tell about the circumstances around the crime (without excuses), acknowledge the harm caused even mentioning the meeting with the community representative, and stating an apology for the actions and the harm caused. We caution not to ask for forgiveness as to do so places a burden on the victim.

In the last five years, I’ve seen very simple apology letters and some that were very powerful. Yet, when I think about apology letters,  one case in particular comes to mind.  Several youths were charged with stealing various signs – property signs, business signs, and road signs. In a conference with different community representatives, one of the youths volunteered to write an apology letter to all of the victims. When I reviewed the letter – I always review the letters– I was moved. We sent the apology letter to the victims in a sealed envelope with an accompanying letter to explain what was in the envelope.

Surprisingly, we received a phone call from one of the victims. I say surprisingly because we had never been able to make contact with this particular individual. We had sent two letters and tried phone calls, but had never received a response. We assumed that the person didn’t want to participate in the process, but we wanted to make sure that she knew the outcome. In her phone call, the victim thanked us for sending the apology letter, telling us how much it meant to her. She wanted us to communicate her forgiveness to the young offender and to tell him that “she was praying for him.” 

So, I’ve seen the power of a sincere apology letter and agree that there needs to be preparation for writing them. If for some reason this can’t be done through a direct meeting with the victim, there are different models of victim offender empathy courses that can assist with this work. We’ve seen through Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project® that interactions between prisons (and individuals on community sanctions) and victims of crime can have a powerful impact on offenders’ attitudes toward offending. This impact helps with the development of empathy and the desire to makes amends even if only through writing an apology letter. The new understanding gained through dialogue helps the offender to write the letter in a way that is sensitive and meaningful to the victim.

Having seen the power of an apology letter, I was sad to read the article from BBC News. Unfortunately, one bad example can cause cynicism and mean that hundreds of good examples are forgotten. However, the positive comments from Victim Support about restorative justice offer hope. For me, the real issue isn’t the offensively written letter, but the mechanism of forcing such actions. Restorative justice provides a different understanding for such letters and different mechanisms for preparing them in ways that can be both meaningful and powerful.

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lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Nov 30, 2011 08:42 PM

Lynette, I really appreciate your perspective here. This was indeed unfortunate. What it shows me is that there are certain processes that should take more time when implementing restorative justice. It also tells me that those in corrections who are attempting to bring restorative justice to bear in their systems need guidance and support by restorative justice experts. There are plenty to choose from around the globe. <br /> <br />There are also no short-cuts when working to expose offenders to the pain they have caused to their victims. I have been a little wary of &quot;apology letters&quot; and efforts to assist inmates in writing them. But I agree with you that programs like Sycamore Tree, an intensive victim-offender in-prison program, are essential when seeking to heal victims, as much as possible, while working to hold offenders accountable for their actions. <br /> <br />I do think that many offenders would choose to make things right with their victims IF they knew how to do so. Writing apologies without a better understanding of how their crimes have impacted their victims often is not enough. <br />But what can be done is to invest in restorative justice programming like Sycamore Tree. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />Rea Consulting <br />Victims-Driven Restorative Justice <br />U.S. <br />

Lorenn Walker
Lorenn Walker says:
Dec 13, 2011 10:07 AM

Hi Lynette &amp; Lisa, <br />Thanks for this interesting post and comments. I agree with you both. A court ordered apology does not mean much to most of the people I have worked with who've been hurt by crime nor by those who've committed them and been forced to give one. It can be adding insult to injury almost for both sides. I like the RJ programs like Sycamore Tree and our 12 week prison based &quot;Restorative Justice as a Solution-Focused Approach to Conflict and Wrongdoing,&quot; where the idea of apology is explored in detail. People do not normally spend much time thinking about what apology or forgiveness means. Asking for forgiveness is common, but really it is odd thing to do. Forgiveness is something the forgiver gives, it is like a gift that should be given of their free will and not asked for. We don't normally ask people to give us gifts. Ben Furman, a psychiatrist from Finland, and I have spend a lot of time trying to develop an interactive program ( for people to consider in more detail both apology formation and forgiveness. We tried to incorporate restorative questions to help people make more meaningful and sincere apologies. We also tried to make the program help people consider forgiveness as a skill to improve relationships with others and with themselves. Thank you for bringing up this topic. It is something more thought needs to be given. Aloha. Lorenn

lparker says:
Dec 13, 2011 12:14 PM

Lorenn, <br />Thanks for your comments and sharing your experiences. I like the ideas of restorative questions in helping people work through the development of an apology. A colleague keeps telling me that people ask for forgiveness as shorthand for apologising. It is something we do a lot of. I think this is because true apology is difficult. It means accepting that my behaviour has been inappropriate and that I have caused harm. It also means accepting that I don't have a right to something whether that be forgiveness or a relationship with the person. Simply offering the apology means that I make myself vulnerable to rejection. I think asking for forgiveness actually avoids some of that vulnerability. <br /> <br />Again, thanks for your comments. <br /> <br />Lynette

jason says:
Jun 03, 2012 04:56 PM

Hi, I have a brother in prison who would like to send an apology letter to the family of his victim. I have heard there are programs where an inmate can write a letter and send it to an organization who would then forward the letter to the family. Do you know of such an organization? Any leads would be appreciated. Thank you for your time. <br /> <br />Jason

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