INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
14 JANUARY 2002
'I won't do it again, that's for sure,' says offender who saw first-hand damage he did
Victims face their tormentor
Life wasn't easy for Marie Thorpe after her West Island home was broken into about a year ago, mere months after the single mother and her two children moved here from Ontario. Thorpe's 16-year-old daughter had been unhappy about the move from the start. The break-in was the last straw for the teenager; she packed her bags and moved back to Ontario, leaving Thorpe and her 11-year-old son.
"So you see, another consequence is that my family life disintegrated," Thorpe told the young man sitting across from her.
Thorpe is a pseudonym; the youth, we'll call Paul, is the one who broke into Thorpe's home. His case could have been sent straight to youth court — he was 17 when he committed his crime — but since Paul admitted his guilt and showed a willingness to change, his case went to mediation instead.
Now, in the Montreal offices of Trajet Jeunesse with Thorpe and two mediators — Thorpe's 11-year-old son watching quietly from the sideline — Paul proudly told Thorpe that he had changed. He quit drugs, has changed his circle of friends and has even quit smoking cigarettes.
"I won't do it again — that's for sure," he said, looking nervous and awkward under his baseball cap.
Then, he asked Thorpe: "What can I do to help you replace things?"
She'd thought about that a lot, and had three requests.
Without hesitating, Paul agreed.
At the end of the hour-long session, Thorpe and Paul shook hands. And Thorpe's son, who for months had been angry at this stranger, decided that deep down, he wasn't such a bad guy.
* * *
Restorative justice has been spreading across the country, although, compared to some other parts of the country, it's still relatively under-used in Quebec. It is supported by grass-roots organizations and by federal and provincial justice departments and Corrections Canada.
Its goal is to heal rather than punish and it's the same philosophy that is behind the court-sponsored sentencing circles used to deal with aboriginal offenders. It can apply to relatively minor crimes or more serious cases.
A basic prerequisite of any restorative-justice process is that the offender accept responsibility for his actions — something not all offenders are prepared to do. But when an offender does acknowledge wrongdoings, this alone can go a long way to helping the victim heal, say advocates, noting that the court system generally discourages offenders from owning up.
While some restorative-justice processes are taking place in conjunction with the formal legal system, other efforts to bring together victim and offender in a restorative-justice process have taken place totally independent from any legal process.
Such was the case with Brock Graham, who is serving a life sentence for the second-degree murder of a girlfriend in 1996, who went through a restorative-justice meeting with the victim's son.
"I just looked at it as a gift from God," Graham said in an interview at a B.C. prison. "When I walked in the room and saw (the youth), I broke into tears."
Graham said he always got on well with the boy, who was 14 at the time of the murder. Now that boy was trying to come to terms with it all.
"He asked me what life in here was like," said Graham. "I told him my prison is inside. I will carry it all my life."
Later, the two even laughed together over shared memories, Graham said.
"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life, although also one of the most satisifying."
Some critics argue that restorative justice is simply a way for an accused to score brownie points with the justice system and get a reduced sentence.
But those who oversee restorative-justice meetings give examples where the process has made a difference, both for the victim and the offender.
Says Andrew McWhinnie, a restorative-justice advocate in B.C.: "Think of you and I and how difficult it is to own up to our own crappy behaviour. That's not easy for anybody, and for somebody who has such a huge amount of things to take responsibility for, solitary confinement is much easier."
In his book Changing Lenses, Howard Zehr, a Menonnite and leader in the restorative-justice movement, describes the difference between restorative justice and more traditional retributive justice:
"Retributive justice: crime is a violation of the state, defined by lawbreaking and guilt. Justice determines blame and administers pain in a contest between the offender and the state directed by systematic rules.
"Restorative justice: crime is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. Justice involves the victim, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation and reassurance."
Government, judges and even the RCMP have worked to build more of this philosophy into the justice system.
Some recent examples:
* * *
The RCMP, which serves as the local police force in hundreds of communities (except in Ontario and Quebec), has led the expansion of that philosophy by encouraging "community justice forums" that bring together victims, offenders and others. The cases of the teacher, the bomb prank and the kids who were lighting fires were all referred by the RCMP and handled through community forums.
Although there are few official studies, supporters say there's anecdotal evidence that the restorative process can reduce recidivism over the long term, if not always immediately. In Nanaimo, for instance, the RCMP started up a community-justice forum program 3 1/2 years ago. As of December 21, of 328 offenders (mostly young) who had gone through a community forum, only 11 had committed another crime.
The values of a restorative approach have also been stressed by the Supreme Court of Canada. And 1996 amendments to the Criminal Code encourage judges to apply restorative justice principals when sentencing.
The new Youth Criminal Justice bill also puts a strong emphasis on restorative justice — an aspect that's been largely overshadowed by criticism over other aspects of the bill, mainly provisions that could see more serious offenders sent to adult prisons.
DEBBIE PARKES Montreal Gazette Saturday, January 12, 2002
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