Tag Archives: victim-offender reconciliation

Canada Doesn’t Need to Fix Its Justice System: It Needs a New One

This article was published in the Huffington Post on May 1, 2017

How do you reform Canada’s criminal justice system? Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and her provincial and territorial counterparts held an urgent meeting on April 28 to discuss “priority responses to further reduce delays in the criminal justice system.”

There was scant information available to the public about the meeting. It appears, however, that there was no agreement on any substantive solutions. All we know is that several key areas face some kind of revision. Mandatory minimums, the bail process, the reclassification of offences and the administration of justice all seem to be on the table. Sadly, the reckless elimination of preliminary inquiries is also still an option.

The ministers have gone so far, it seems, to label their efforts as “transformational” — at least that is how their objectives are described in the Canadian Intergovernmental Secretariat News Release.

Indeed, depending on what is proposed, many of the prospective changes are necessary.

Necessary, but ultimately inadequate. Necessary but insufficient in resolving the inefficiency, the delays and the inhumanity of our criminal justice system. Necessary, but not “transformational.”

That is because what our criminal justice system needs is not mere fixes that further entrench the status quo and the adversarial, punishment-oriented and individualistic process we have now, but true transformational change. We need transformational change that will not only dramatically reduce delays and backlogs in our criminal justice system, but will revolutionize it to make it more meaningful to both victims and offenders.

The most imperative of these transformative options is the mainstream implementation of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a process that brings together (in appropriate cases) the offender, the victim and their supporters with highly trained and professional facilitators for one or more meetings, usually conducted in a circle. During these encounters, the victims tell their story, describe how the offence impacted them and seek answers from the offender. In turn, the offender listens, and relates his or her own story. The focus is on “why” rather than on “who,” and on healing rather than on punishment. The group often works together to find a resolution, not a punishment.

By and large, restorative justice works. There is plenty of proof, including in Public Safety Canada’s own records, that restorative justice is a better alternative to our system. It helps victims recover more quickly from post-traumatic stress disorder. It sometimes results in collaboration between the offender, the victim and the connected community to assist both the offender and the victim move forward. It holds offenders accountable and gives them a better chance at moving in a more positive direction.

And restorative justice seems to reduce recidivism. This is all in stark contrast to the impact of our current criminal justice system: costly, dehumanizing and generally ineffectual in rehabilitation, reintegration, and in reducing recidivism.

Rather than have accused persons (and victims) go through a harsh, degrading and impersonal court process and face a punitive, overly individualistic response, we should bring both willing accused and willing victims into the restorative justice process at the earliest possible stage. We should replace our adversarial, punishment-oriented system with restorative justice — and not simply at the sentencing stage, which is where the dearth of our restorative justice activity lies now.

While replacing our court process with a restorative process would be transformative and revolutionary for our western notion of justice, restorative justice, itself, is not revolutionary. It has its roots in many Indigenous communities. It has been tried, in one form or another, in other jurisdictions, from England to New Zealand (where restorative justice has replaced the adversarial system for youth since 1989), and on a smaller, more timid scale across various parts of Canada, as a part of the sentencing process.

Other solutions, such as reducing the number of charges laid and the number of cases that wind their way through the courts, eliminating solitary confinement, and keeping the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system are essential and will also significantly make the criminal justice system more just, more efficient and less costly. Yet none of these appear to have formed part of the discussion of our ministers of justice last Friday. Ultimately, no other “fix” will be as transformational as restorative justice.

Restorative justice is such a meaningful response to our criminal justice woes that any other solution pales in comparison. More judges, more Crown attorneys, eliminating preliminary inquiries… they are all diversions. They are Band-Aid solutions implemented when we (and our elected officials in particular) lack the will to confront the foundational challenges to our notion of justice and the courage to implement transformational change.

Our ministers of justice will be looking for fixes to our broken justice system. Instead, they should focus on creating a new one. A truly just justice system.

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Justice for Victims: Less Jail Time, More Face Time

While the Federal Conservative government is spending billions of dollars to build more prisons, to jail more people, and to punish with greater vengeance, all in the name of tackling crime and of justice for victims, the province of Alberta apparently cannot come up with a measly $351,000 for the one measure that is proven to actually help victims and possibly to reduce crime: victim-offender reconciliation.

Alberta’s Public Security Department announced on Monday that it is ending the annual $351,000 grant for restorative justice programs, allegedly because economic times are tough.

Victim-offender reconciliation (V.O.R.), a form of restorative justice, is one of the most effective and humane means of dealing with crime. It involves mediated or facilitated meetings between offenders and victims. The aim of V.O.R. is, on the one hand, to ensure that offenders comprehend the full human impact of their actions, and that they voluntarily –and genuinely–take some responsibility for those actions. Equally significant, reconciliations help victims cope with their trauma and reduce their fears by humanizing the offender. They help victims move on with their lives. When done right, victim-offender reconciliations may even lead to the wondrous result of the victims helping the offenders overcome those life obstacles that lead them to commit the crimes.

If politicians truly care about victims and want justice for victims, they must look beyond the impulsive urge for punishment for the sake of punishment. They must look at processes that in fact make victims feel whole and restored. Harsh imprisonment may satisfy a desire for “justice” as revenge, but it does not bring about true justice. It never helps victims actually cope with their trauma. Yet incarceration and punishment continue to be the reckless and irrational mission of law-and-order governments.

Furthermore, as a society, we continue to use avoidance and punishment to deal with problems and conflicts that, in fact, require conversation, reflection, commitment, responsibility and empathy.

In its essence, crime is the infliction of pain (sometimes horrible and tragic) by one person on another. Friends sometimes do this to each other, though on a different scale. It is true that when wronged by a friend, some people choose avoidance and simply cut off a relationship. But we know that the better and more effective way of dealing with that pain is to confront the friend and to communicate with them. Why would it be any different if some other human being causes us pain? Why would we choose avoidance and punishment, rather than communication and resolution? Why would we not seek to open the doors to victim-offender reconciliation?

The path of victim-offender reconciliation is not easy- least of all for the offender. It is demanding. It can be emotionally draining and gruelling. It compels the offender to deal with his actions and their consequences, rather than bury the memories, ignore responsibility, or rationalize his behaviour. It impels the offender to make amends, thereby helping the victim and improving his own life. And because V.O.R. forces the offender to confront the victim, and mobilizes everyone to deal with the underlying issues that lead to the criminal behaviour, it is effective.

After all, what is more likely to reduce recidivism: an authentic, deep and personal examination of one’s actions, their consequences, and the acceptance of responsibility, or a jail cell where an offender is taught little conflict management or other skills? What is more likely to empower victims and to help offenders change direction: a process that encourages everyone to tackle the underlying factors that lead to the crime, or a prison sentence where the offender develops bonds with others who are also leading a life of crime? The benefits of restorative justice to the victim who heals emotionally and to the offender who humanizes his victim are simply greater than any money-saving measure.

And while it is difficult to measure what the cost savings are, surely reconciliation is more cost-effective than imprisonment. The cost of incarceration is extremely high, ranging from $89,000 to $250,000 per year. This cost does not include the eventual costs to society of unemployable, beaten or unstable individuals, once they are released from jail.

But “law-and-order” politicians and our current Conservative government continue to charge anyone who opposes the backward and Draconian push for more jails and longer sentences as being “soft on crime.” They regularly accuse detractors of not caring about victims.

If we truly care about victims, however, we must help them cope and heal. Victim-offender reconciliation programs across North America have proven that the process of restorative justice can do just that, in a way that no tough sentence alone can ever do.

According to the CBC and the Edmonton Journal, the $351,000 per year grant (the equivalent of incarcerating two inmates for one year) helped victims and offenders in 218 criminal cases in one single year (2009). With each case bringing together at least one offender and often more than one victim as well as mediators, the $351,000 helped over 436 victims and offenders, and brought together 1000 or more people. Try stuffing that in a jail cell.

(To read the reflections of an ex-offender on restorative justice and the London riots, see this article: Restorative Justice After the Riots?)

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