Caught for covering a North Vancouver high school in graffiti with his friends four years ago, Vicky Crompton's teenage son took responsibility for his crime within the justice system but without ever setting foot in a traditional courtroom.
After talking with the police, Crompton's 15 year-old son decided to participate in an alternative to the criminal justice system, taking part in the North Shore Restorative Justice Society's Restorative Response Program.
The North Shore Restorative Justice Society is a non-profit organization that advocates and supports restorative responses to crime and conflict.
The society, the RCMP and the West Vancouver Police Department work together to offer an alternative to the criminal justice system on the North Shore.
At the mediation, as it is called in the restorative program, the boys who vandalized the school, their family
members, a mediator from the society and the principal of the school sat down together.
The principal expressed the harm caused by vandalizing the school to those who learn and work there.
Crompton said the sit-down was an emotional experience.
"I actually found it quite difficult because I am a traditional person and hadn't experienced anything like that before," she said.
"But, intellectually I understood the exercise and I felt that it was a very healthy way to do more than just 'punish' the offenders, but actually to help them really understand what impact they have had, so that you hope they take the learning from that and not re-offend," said Crompton.
She said the process made a lasting impression on the boys in a way she thinks the traditional criminal justice system with police involvement couldn't have.
"Beyond just the act of doing what he did and then being punished for it, restorative justice made him have to look behind all of that to see what the impact was to other people.
"You can't run away from that when you are listening to somebody describe the fact that kids couldn't go on school outings and some of the kids were frightened because they thought the people that did the graffiti were angry at them," she said.
After mediation, her son had to complete some restorative work, she said. Crompton said during the summer holidays her son did various work at the school, like painting and gardening.
Crompton said since her son, who is now 18, participated in the program he has found positive ways to channel his graffiti art, has graduated high school, moved out and has a full-time job.
She said she would recommend the program to other North Shore residents. She said she believes her son's run in with the law could have been a tipping point if they had not taken the restorative approach.
Similar experiences with the Restorative Response Program, like the Crompton family's, are becoming more common.
A working model for restorative justice was developed in the Maple Ridge/Mission area in the mid-'90s. Organizers of that program took it upon themselves to reach out to other Lower Mainland municipalities and ask that they consider such an approach.
The North Shore society was created following a 1997 town hall meeting in North Vancouver.
Alana Abramson, executive director at the North Shore Restorative Justice Society, was the mediator in the Crompton's case and she said since the program's creation in 1997 the number of offenders taking part has been on the upswing.
"It has been really unbelievable actually, we've grown so much and we can barely keep up sometimes with the number of cases that we are getting. We're seeing more complex cases, since as we build trust with police they are willing to send us more complex cases, more serious cases," Abramson said.
In order for offenders to participate in the restorative program, police need to make a referral and the offender must take responsibility for their crime, said Sgt. Peter DeVries, media relations officer for the North Vancouver RCMP. Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act the police must consider the restorative justice program as an option, said DeVries.
Abramson said the amount of referrals from the police varies, but she estimated that the program receives about one referral every week, which is an increase from her estimated one referral every month when the program was first created.
Abramson said the increase is occurring for a number of reasons. She said as of 2003, police have had to start legally considering restorative justice as an option and legislation takes awhile to come into effect. This means the Restorative Response Program is beginning to feel the effect of the legislation now.
DeVries said the fact that restorative justice is required to be considered is a reflection of its value.
"As the police, we definitely see the benefits of taking this kind of broad approach to dealing with people," he said.
"People are complex and there's always reasons people have committed crimes and done things, and sometimes understanding those reasons and dealing with those reasons rather than simply dealing with the end product which is the crime itself, can really help not only to bring closure to victims but also to help rehabilitate the offenders," said DeVries.
DeVries said the Restorative Response Program takes some of the pressure off the police, courts and the criminal justice system. He said the ideology behind the restorative justice system fits well with the RCMP, but he added alternative methods are not suitable for every case.
"The RCMP is really a progressive police force and we really try to look for new ways to do things better and that includes a really kind of utilitarian, socially minded approach to the way we deal with offenders, and restorative justice really blends nicely with some of those themes and some of those ideas," he said.
The police may be more aware of the option of restorative justice because of the legislation, but Abramson and DeVries both agree that the North Shore Restorative Justice Society works hard to promote their program.
Abramson said she wants people to know this option is available to them and to advocate for it. She said there is this belief in society that restorative justice is a soft approach as opposed to the criminal justice system, which is a more serious approach.
"That is one of the common criticisms, that it's a soft approach, that people sit in a circle holding hands and hugging it out. That has not ever been my experience," she said.
"I've sat through 100 conferences and watched people that have caused sometimes a significant amount of harm walk in and to sit face to face with somebody that they've hurt.
"It's incredibly difficult and we have some people that say 'No, I don't want do it, I'd rather take my chances in court, thank you very much,'" Abramson said.
She said the majority of the offenders the society sees are boys between the ages of 14 to 16. She said these ages are typical because they are the age that the majority of criminals start to engage in illegal activity.
Abramson said the most common crimes the program deals with are mischief, including property damage and graffiti, assault, break and enter, fraud, and theft -- often times between and employer and an employee.
She said it is common for young offenders, more than older offenders, to participate in the restorative justice program because society believes young people should be given second chances.
Although the majority of offenders Abramson sees are youth, she said she believes that the restorative justice program is an important alternative and should see more adult offenders.
"It allows people to have voice and involvement, so it's particularly effective for victims. Victims need three things generally after they've been harmed: they need information, they need support, and they need to feel safe.
"When you ask victims if you get those things through the formal system, those needs are often not met," she said.
As people become more aware of the Restorative Response Program, Abramson said the number of people seeking justice through restorative methods will continue to grow.
For more information about the North Shore Restorative Justice Society, visit www.nsrj.ca.
North Shore Restorative Justice Society will hold its first annual fundraising event on Thursday, July 14 at 6:30 p.m.
Money raised will start a school-based initiative titled Learning from the Virks: A Story of Courage and Compassion.
The evening will feature a buffet dinner, silent auction, a guest speaker and special guest performance by the Gram Partisans.
The event takes place in the banquet room of Cheers Restaurant, 125 East Second Street, North Vancouver.