JAMES: Restorative justice expands its goal

"We see restorative justice as an important lens [through which] to view issues in our schools. By involving everyone affected by an incident, the approach truly models the sense of community we value in our schools."

Chris Kennedy, Supt. of Schools, West Vancouver, Oct. 7, 2013 How often have we seen television coverage of people exiting a courtroom upset over a judge's sentencing decision that has fallen far short of justice? Whether those people were the victims of crime, or the families and friends of a victim no longer alive, their tears and anger stem from a belief that, figuratively or literally, the offenders "got away with it."

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The entire community pays a price when crimes are committed, which makes the programs offered by the North Shore Restorative Justice Society an essential part of doing all we can to prevent them. Better that, than to reach for words of comfort that also fall short of the mark.

With reparation as its goal, the theory of restorative justice was conceived about 30 years ago.

By 2008, an excellent briefing paper by the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation in Washington, D.C., noted there were "more than 300 victim-offender mediation programs in North America and over 500 in Europe."

As you will see, however, although the original restorative justice concept "emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour," today's work is evolving toward an exciting blend of both reparation and prevention.

Arriving late to the concept, it has taken many years and a liberal dose of maturity to move me away from my "hang 'em high" attitude, to the point where I can be enthusiastic about the programs offered by the 16-year-old North Shore society.

Ironically, it was just one day after Canada's maximum-security 178-year-old Kingston Penitentiary closed its doors for good on Sept. 30 that I met with executive director, Teresa Canning and two other NSRJ members to discuss justice initiatives that are poles apart from the history of that notorious institution.

But as Canning explained, restorative justice is no walk in the park - not for offenders and certainly not for victims who agree to participate in the process.

First and foremost, it takes significant courage for victims - no matter the crime - to agree to faceto-face encounters with offenders.

It may also take a long time for an offender to take "ownership" of the harm they have caused - whether it was harm to an individual or to the community at large.

"People get into trouble with the law for many reasons," Canning said. "Sometimes it's associated with drugs, alcohol or mental illness; sometimes it involves a difficult or abusive family situation."

Canning's experience has shown that the common thread in many of the situations NSRJ staff are asked to take on, is that critically important lines of communication are broken or non-existent.

"In some cases," she said, "a family's communication happens for the very first time in a restorative justice session."

So, is restorative justice only used after the damage has been done, or can it indeed be used as a way to reduce the number of crimes being committed? The short answer: either approach can occur.

In its original form and still in play today, offenders - many of whom are 12-17 years old - are referred to NSRJ by police, the courts, schools, social workers and other agencies.

Staffers follow up by explaining the restorative justice process to everyone impacted by the behaviour or crime.

On a purely voluntary basis, the victims are then offered an opportunity to participate in faceto-face reconciliation meetings or in an arms length conference with the offender(s).

Canada's Youth Criminal Justice Act aims to encourage youth to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

But as restorative justice volunteer and long-time community activist Eric Andersen said during our meeting, "The present system hasn't been working.

"When I was asked to become involved with NSRJ and followed the path of just one case, I began to look at both victims and perpetrators in a totally different light. I'm convinced restorative justice is a positive alternative."

Although not all victimoffender conferences involve youth - one success was a 70-year-old male offender - prevention of criminal behaviour is the eventual goal for Canning and for Lindy Pfeil who is co-ordinator of the NSRJ Circles in Schools program.

The circles concept derives from the centurie sold Aboriginal healing circles, where everyone has an equal voice in non-judgmental, open communication.

Currently, the program is used in three North Vancouver schools: Norgate elementary and Mountainside and Carson Graham secondary schools.

Teachers have been enthusiastic and support the initiative.

In West Vancouver, Superintendent of Schools Chris Kennedy says the program is in two SD#45 schools: Bowen Island community school and Westcot elementary.

"These, plus many others use the language and structures of restorative justice in their schools," he wrote.

Most encouraging of all, was the energy shown by the NSRJ group when they spoke of their hope that all North Shore schools will embrace the NSRJ Circles program in the earliest possible elementary-school grades.

"Restorative justice is today's alternative to the old 'time out' type of punishment for bad behaviour," Canning explained. "We need to allow kids a voice, and to strengthen their bonds to the community."

Nodding her agreement, Pfeil said, "If the circles can reach children at that age, teach them empathy and have them understand how their actions affect others, we believe there'll be less youth getting into trouble."

As in many community initiatives that rely on both professionals and citizens, funding and volunteers are always needed. So if you find this idea intriguing and would like to be an important part of the solution, you can learn more at: nsrj.ca or by writing to: info@nsrj.ca rimco@shaw.ca

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