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Bethlehem Police Family Group Conferencing Project

Ages 5-18

Rating: Level 2


The Bethlehem (Pa.) Police Family Group Conferencing Project is a restorative justice program designed to deal more effectively with young first-time offenders by diverting them from court and involving their extended families and victims in group conferences. The program is initiated when the police liaison officer reviews arrest records submitted by officers, pulls out cases that appear to be appropriate candidates, and conducts a criminal history check to confirm eligibility. The police liaison officer then makes an initial contact with the offender and his or her parents to explain the family group conferencing (FGC) process and solicit their participation. If they agree tentatively to participate, the victim is then contacted, and the process is again explained and participation solicited. Only when both the offender and the victim tentatively agree to participate is the case assigned to one of the trained officers, who further explains the process to participants, coordinates a date/time for the conference, and convenes the conference. The cases deemed eligible for the program are property crimes such as retail and other thefts, criminal mischief and trespassing, and violent crimes including threats, harassment, disorderly conduct, and simple assaults. Offenders who previously had been involved with the juvenile probation system were excluded from the study, as were felonies, drug/alcohol crimes, sex offenses, weapons offenses, and cases in which there was no direct victim.

The FGC begins with a scripted protocol that explains the purpose of the conference and informs the offenders of their due process rights. The process then proceeds with the facilitator asking a series of open-ended questions of the offender, the victim, the victim’s supporters, the offender’s supporters, and the arresting officer (if present). In the agreement phase, all of the participants, beginning with victims, talk about what they would like to see done to address the harm. Solutions are not imposed by the police facilitator but result from the dynamic interaction of participants. When an agreement is reached, the conference is over. The facilitator can then provide refreshments and allow time for informal socializing while writing up the agreement for the participants to sign.


The evaluation used a randomized experimental design. All juveniles arrested by the Bethlehem Police Department (BPD) who fit the eligibility profile were selected for participation in the study. A total of 140 property crime cases and 75 violent crime cases were selected for the experiment, with two thirds of each type randomly assigned to a conference (treatment group) and one third of each type assigned to formal adjudication (control group). If either party declined or the offender did not admit responsibility for the offense, the case was processed through formal means. Those cases constituted a second treatment group (decline group). The 215 criminal incidents included in the study involved arrests of 292 juveniles and the victimization of 217 persons or properties: 85 individuals, 107 retail stores, and 25 schools. The final group composition consisted of 103 in the control group, 80 in the treatment group, and 109 in the decline group.

Members of each treatment group were surveyed either by mail, in-person interviews, or telephone interviews about 2 weeks after their cases were disposed. Data on recidivism and outcomes of control and decline group cases was obtained from 1) the BPD arrest database and 2) a database of records from the five district magistrates serving Bethlehem. In addition, an attitudinal and work environment survey was administered to the BPD twice—just before the conferencing program began (pretest) and 18 months later (posttest).


The evaluation of the Bethlehem Family Group Conferencing Project determined that violent offenders in the treatment group were significantly less likely to be rearrested in a 12-month period than violent offenders in the other two groups. Researchers found that juveniles in the decline group had the highest rates of rearrest. There was no treatment effect for property offenders.

The researchers found that typical American police officers are capable of conducting conferences consistent with due process and restorative justice principles, given adequate training and supervision. While conferencing did not transform police attitudes, organizational culture, or role perceptions, those with the most exposure did move toward a more community-oriented, problem-solving deportment. This research also shows that police-facilitated restorative conferences can produce conflict-reducing outcomes that result in participant satisfaction and perceptions of fairness at least as high as other restorative justice programs and the courts. Victims, offenders, and parents who participated accepted the police-based restorative justice.


McCold, Paul. 2002. “An Experiment in Police-Based Restorative Justice: The Bethlehem (PA) Project.” Police Practice and Research: An International Journal. 4(4): 379-390.

———. 2003. “An Experiment in Police-Based Restorative Justice: The Bethlehem (PA) Project.” In Peter C. Krakowski (ed.). Correctional Counseling and Treatment, 5th ed. Long Grove, Ill: Waveland Press, Inc.

McCold, Paul, and Benjamin Wachtel. 1998. Restorative Policing Experiment: Bethlehem Pennsylvania Police Family Conferencing Project. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.


Paul McCold, Ph.D., Director of Research
International Institute for Restorative Practices
P.O. Box 229
Bethlehem, PA 18016–0229
Phone: (610) 807-9221
Fax: (610) 807-0423
Web site: