Restorative Justice in Canada

By Aastha Tripathi

On January 17th, the New Brunswick RCMP reported the arrestation of two men, aged 26 and 29. The men were charged with two counts of possession of stolen property and one count of possession of a firearm while prohibited (each). As a result, both were remanded into custody until their next appearance in court on January 20th. This is a prime example of the traditional justice system wherein the offender is held accountable only through punishment. 

An alternative way to address conflict and crime that enables a community to facilitate a meaningful solution for the offences and the harm caused to the victims is referred to as restorative justice. Essentially, restorative justice ensures that the offender is held accountable for his/her actions and directly works to repair the harm done within a community. The primary focus is placed on establishing guilt and blame; ultimately, the course of action is based upon the offender’s past behaviour. Additionally, the victims are central to the process of resolving a crime. The ultimate goal of a restorative justice program is to reconcile between both parties.

The Correctional Service of Canada Dispute Resolution Unit outlines the various restorative justice programs throughout Canada. One such program that promotes the belief that the central responsibility of addressing the disputes of criminal nature lies within the community and not just with the victims and their immediate family is called Peacemaking Circles. Rooted in the Indigenous experience and tradition, peacemaking circles endorse the importance of addressing the criminal problem at hand as well as building a community. Peacemaking circles bring individuals together and build trust, respect, intimacy, goodwill, belonging, generosity, mutuality and reciprocity. This process invites the individual to change his/her relationship with the community and thus ensuring a harmony within it. 

Another program available to youth offenders is Family Group Conferencing. This concept directly involves the offender’s family and the victims holding the offender accountable, in teaching individual responsibility and addressing the harm caused. The primary focus in Family Group Conferencing is to repair the damage caused by the offence and to decrease the likelihood of future damage. The program is often facilitated before court sentencing and brings together the young offender, their victim, family members, and community supporters. The conference follows a simple structure: the offenders talk about the incident, their thought process, and who they affected. On the other hand, the victims, the family of the offender, and supporters describe the event and how they have been affected. Finally, a “Restorative Action Plan” is set in motion so that the offender can take responsibility and move forward from the situation. Thus, this program achieves the goal to repair the wounded relationship of the offender with the community and his/her family members while decreasing the likelihood of the offender to commit crimes in the future. 

A prominent success rate of the restorative justice program can be observed in British Columbia. Starting in 2011, minor youth crimes have been referred to a panel of police and social workers who determine whether the young offender should go to court or be referred to a restorative program. If the recommendation is for a program, a youth support worker reaches out to the victim and offender to discuss this approach. Since the program was introduced, more than three thousand cases of crimes which account seventy to eighty percent of the offences, have been dealt with in this fashion. An independent study conducted by the Social Impact Analytics attested that restorative justice programs reduced the rate of reoffending by eighteen percent. Additionally, less than 1,160 young adults have received a criminal record. 

Moreover, restorative programs in British Columbia “provided value for money to the public purse.” The independent analysis concluded that these programs cost the public one million dollars fewer in administration costs for the police and youth support service. Furthermore, it is estimated that three million dollars were spent on court order, whereas now, less than a million is spent. As a result, the government has reinvested two million dollars in preventative services, like strengthening family relationships, preventing homelessness and ensuring young people are gaining the skills needed to be employed. In this way, restorative programs work to ensure that the young person’s life is not entirely altered due to youthful indiscretion. 

Nonetheless, it is important to note that restorative justice can only take place under circumstances where the offender admits guilt and accepts responsibility, the victim voluntarily agrees to participate in the program, and trained facilitators are available in the community where a restorative program is put in place. Overall, the restorative justice program can be beneficial for victims, offenders and the community, as the program enable them to express their emotions as a result of the crime and harm because of it. A restorative approach ultimately heals the community, promoting healthy relationships for the youth while decreasing the rate of recidivism. 

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