History of Community Mediation in the United States

Community mediation in the United States has evolved along two different paths — generally parallel, occasionally merged, often philosophically divergent. One path evolved out of the social and political activism of the 1960s, primarily as a response to the urban disorders of that time. The other evolved out of efforts, both within and outside of government, to reform the justice system. The potential of community mediation, and the challenges that might impede this promise, can be found in these dichotomous roots.

The court-focused movement was largely a response to the perceived inefficiency of the court system. In 1965, a presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice focused national attention on our country’s overburdened judiciary. Its findings helped build consensus around the need for reform and experimentation in and around the court system, with particular focus on minor criminal cases involving neighbors, relatives and other acquaintances. These views were reinforced nearly a decade later, in 1976, by the National Conference on the Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice.

Early programs included the Philadelphia Municipal Court Arbitration Tribunal (1969); the Columbus Night Prosecutors Program (1971), which used law students to mediate cases in 30 minute time slots; the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Manhattan (1975); and the Miami Citizen Dispute Settlement Program (1975).

The goals of these court reform programs still sound familiar to us today:
· divert cases from court case loads;
· provide more appropriate processes for selected types of cases;
· provide more efficient and accessible services to citizens;
· reduce case processing costs to the justice system; and,
· improve citizen satisfaction with the justice system.

On the other path, the more community-focused centers were established as an activist response to the urban disorders of the late 1960s. Community conciliation mechanisms were viewed as an opportunity for citizens to participate in the prevention and early intervention of conflicts as an alternative to institutional mechanisms. At the heart of the early community mediation movement were principles of democratic participation, drawing on citizen rights and responsibilities and the involvement of networks of community organizations.

Proponents of the early community mediation movement expected that the mediation process would have a positive impact on living conditions in urban centers by affecting underlying levels of inter-group and interpersonal conflict. Not only could mediation afford participants a sense of power and control over their lives, but it could also “humanize people to each other, help them to look beyond their assumptions and see each other as real persons with real human concerns and needs, even in the midst of disagreement – it can evoke recognition.”

Mediation was viewed as “an empowerment tool for individuals as well as communities to take back control over their lives from a governmental institution (the courts) that was perceived not only as inefficient, but also as oppressive and unfair.”

Early community-based models include the Rochester American Arbitration Association Community Dispute Service Project (1973), which was a broad-based response to conflicts in the community resulting from changing racial balances; the Boston (Dorchester) Urban Court Program (1975), a court-connected but storefront urban neighborhood justice center in a rapidly integrating Irish-American neighborhood with growing racial tensions and fear of crime; and the San Francisco Community Board Program (1977).

These programs shared some of the same goals as the court reform programs in developing more appropriate and accessible forms of dispute resolution, but went beyond that to:
· seek to encourage decentralization of the control of decision-making in communities;
· create a parallel, community-based justice system that addresses disputes well before they enter the formal legal system;
· develop indigenous community leadership;
· work to reduce community tensions by strengthening the capacity of neighborhood, church, civic, school and social service organizations to address conflict effectively;
· strengthen the ability of citizens to actively participate in their local democratic processes for effective self-governance.

In October 1977 the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) of the US Dept. of Justice (Griffin Bell was then Attorney General) released Neighborhood Justice Centers: An Analysis of Potential Models that reviewed the various models mentioned above, many of which LEAA funded. LEAA then funded 3 experimental Neighborhood Justice Centers – in Atlanta, Los Angles and Kansas City; they published an Interim Evaluation Report in 1979. One consistent observation in these studies was that it was inappropriate to develop a universal model.

There were perhaps 10 programs in 1975; there were 170+ program by 1985; approximately 300 by 1995; the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM) estimates there are currently over 500. States with the most centers: NY, MI, NC, MA, CA, FL, OH, TX, and NJ. Most other states have a few.

A few years ago NAFCM suggested that community mediation is characterized by or committed to:
· using trained community volunteers as the primary providers of mediation services; volunteers are not required to have academic or professional credentials [by 2001 there are more than 2500 volunteer mediators in NC];
· being a private nonprofit or public agency, or program thereof, with a governing/advisory board;
· using mediators, staff and governing/advisory boards who represent the diversity of the community served;
· providing direct access to the public through self-referral and striving to reduce barriers to service, including physical, linguistic, cultural, programmatic, and economic barriers;
· providing service to clients regardless of their ability to pay;
· initiating, facilitating, and educating for collaborative community relationships to effect positive systemic change;
· engaging in public awareness campaigns and educational activities about the values and practices of mediation;
· providing a forum for dispute resolution at the earliest stage of conflict; and,
· providing an alternative to the judicial system at any stage of a conflict.