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Offering options in approach to crime

Restorative justice program aims to provide healing
restorative justice

“This is done. This matter is closed. You’re not a bad person, you did a bad thing.”

These are some of the words that have been used to end restorative justice conferences, which aim to provide closure and restitution to victims of crime. The message seems simple, but it carries a lot of meaning.  

The sessions are part of the Restorative Response program run through the North Shore Restorative Justice Society, which has been in operation in the area since 1997. The group works with both the North Vancouver RCMP and the West Vancouver police to provide options for offenders of lower-level crimes. A majority of the files they work with involve youth offenders, but they also work with adults as well.

Executive director Sioned Dyer says restorative justice has its roots in indigenous cultures and is gaining a foothold in many mainstream systems around the world.

“There is a lot of misinformation about what restorative justice is,” she notes. “It’s a more holistic approach to crime and conflict.”

One of the misconceptions about restorative justice is that the process favours the offender who gets off easy. Dyer disagrees. In fact, there’s huge accountability placed on the offender when a restitution is decided. The type of restitution is different for each file and depends on the details of the crime and who is involved. It could be a lot of different things, such as financial restitution, community service, or a letter of apology.

“The follow-up on the offender is actually incredibly robust and thorough,” says Dyer.

And if the offender doesn’t follow through with the restitution, the file is sent back to the police.

“The Restorative Response program exists because we know that crime and conflict often occurs when there’s a breakdown in relationships, and we look at crime and conflict as being a community-focused experience that we want to address at a community level,” explains Dyer.

Most of their files are referred to them by the police, who suggest people they think might be better suited to restorative justice rather than being sent through the traditional criminal court process. But they do take some community-based referrals, such as those involving neighbourhood disputes.  

Once a file is forwarded to the program, a restorative justice manager will consider what harm was done, who was involved, and how best to repair the harm that was caused. The process is completely voluntary and both the offender and the victim must agree to participate. If the offender chooses not to do restorative justice the police will likely move the case through the regular court process, so there is an incentive for offenders to go through the process but it’s still volunteer.

“In order to participate in the program, all offenders must take accountability. And that can look like many different things but there needs to be an acknowledgement that they understand what they have done,” notes Dyer.

She emphasizes the program is meant to benefit all parties and the community, not just the offender.

“We’re victim-centred, that’s a really important point,” she says. “We’re looking to provide support to the victim in whatever capacity that looks like.”

In a strange twist of fate, Dyer was the victim of a crime just one week after starting in her new position as executive director of the program. That was four months ago.

A huge part of restorative justice involves providing an opportunity for the victim to ask the offender questions, such as why they committed the crime, to help the victim process what happened to them and to help them understand that the offender isn’t the monster they’ve been having nightmares about, but is actually a young kid who made a bad decision and feels really bad about it. Knowing that often helps the victim heal by allowing them to let go of some of the fear and anger they are holding on to.

 “(It’s) something I wish I had when I had the situation happen to me,” says Dyer, whose apartment and car had been broken into. “What I really wish I had was an opportunity to sit down with the offender and just share with them how it had impacted me.”

On the other side, the process aims to open an opportunity for the offender to realize and understand the impact their crime had on the victim. It’s also important for the offender to know that they can move beyond what they did to become a more productive member of the community.

“Crime and conflict has a ripple effect so even if you aren’t directly impacted, it impacts the community when crime occurs,” says Dyer.

Moving forward on a more positive path is an important part of the process for offenders of any age, but especially youth offenders, notes Dyer.

“The labels that we put on youth and the labels that they internalize at a young age, it’s really hard to move beyond that.”

So if a young person is told they are bad because they stole some clothes or food, they will likely internalize that and that might inform their future life choices.

Bringing the offender and the victim together in a face-to-face conference is also an important part of the restorative process and occurs for each case.

Every conference has two trained facilitators present and both the victim and offender are also able to bring in community support, such as parents or youth workers, somebody they feel is an ally and will be able to sit with them as support. It’s not uncommon for the conferences to last for hours, and in the end all parties agree to specific restitution and sign a contract. At the end of the conference, the facilitators make it clear to everyone that the matter is settled and it’s time for everyone to move on from it.

“We’re looking for healing on both sides,” says Dyer.

She thinks that this type of approach to lower-level crimes, such as shoplifting, mischief, and some types of assault, is cheaper in the long run and more beneficial to the victim, the offender and the community at large. But it’s hard to parcel out what that cost savings might be because they can’t count the number of crimes that don’t happen due to the restorative justice process.

“Restorative justice more and more from a federal and provincial level has been recognized and promoted and encouraged by whatever relevant bodies to be used more often,” she adds.

Another arm of the program reaches out to elementary and high school kids. The Circle in Schools program features weekly classroom discussions by program facilitators about some of the core restorative justice principles, such as inclusivity, humility, respect, and trust. The program promotes social-emotional learning for kids so they can develop good communication skills, empathy, and conflict management skills, and they can learn to feel engaged and included.

“We know that when young people feel isolated and excluded there’s a real breakdown with how they connect to their community,”says Dyer.

Funding for the group’s programs comes from all three North Shore municipalities, as well as donations and grants.

There will be an information night on Feb. 2, 6:30-8:30 p.m., in the Cedar room at West Vancouver Community Centre. The event is free and open to anyone. Visit for more information.

Contact Rosalind Duane at [email protected].