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The grey area of criminal justice
Should a drunk teenager who vandalizes his neighbours’ lawns one Halloween night pay for his poor decision for the rest of his life? Should a hungry 90-year-old who gets caught stealing some groceries be dragged through a year-long court process?
Police agencies in Canada this week are touting the benefits of restorative justice, which provides first-time offenders who are willing to take responsibility for their actions with a chance to avoid a criminal record.
“It’s a process that really looks at crime as being against community, rather than being against an individual or a business,” said Geoff Moffett, community justice initiatives case worker for the John Howard Society, which administers the restorative justice program for Saanich police files.
“The restorative piece looks at, ‘How do you restore balance to the community?’ So looking at ways of paying back the community rather than serving a sentence or punishment for something you did against an individual.”
Sgt. Alan Gurzinski, Saanich’s sergeant in charge of crime prevention, says investigating officers have the authority to decide which files can be diverted through restorative justice.
“The offences are typically on the low end of the scale, such as shoplifting, mischiefs, graffiti – things like that,” he said. “But they have to be willing to be responsible for what they’ve done, and in some cases sit down with the people that are affected there and come to some kind of an agreement.”
Moffett says there are three routes the restorative justice process can take through John Howard: diversion; victim-offender mediation; and community forums.
“We’re not in the business of shaming anyone; it’s really about paying back and kind of giving back to a community that’s been wronged,” he said. “The idea is you make a mistake, you shouldn’t get punished for the rest of your life. So here’s an opportunity to give back and understand that it’s quite the gift that you’re being given.”
Successful completion of the voluntary process results in no criminal record.
“The consequences of having a criminal record are far-reaching. I think it’s to the advantage of the individual to go through this route if it’s offered,” Gurzinski said.
“When you consider jobs, volunteer positions, coaching your child’s soccer team in the future, or volunteering for Cubs, if you have a criminal record that may prevent you from travelling. When you explain these consequences to a first-time offender, the lights go on and they think, ‘This is my one chance to make things right and to get back on track.’”
Kelli Moorhouse, chair of Camosun College’s criminal justice program teaches a course on restorative justice. She says the biggest beneficiaries are the victims.
“It’s the need for victims to be able to make closure and move on with their life. The focus (of restorative justice) is on the victim and looking and repairing the harm done to them,” she said.
“The idea is if people who commit crime can develop some degree of empathy, we can move to more law-abiding behaviour. The research has shown, with respect to the offender, the outcome is that you don’t tend to see people committing further crime, if they develop the empathy piece.”
Const. Mike Russell, spokesperson for the Victoria Police Department, says officers see the value in diverting files through restorative justice.
“Seeing the effect on offenders and victims has been very powerful for a lot of our officers,” he said. “To put everybody in a room to talk about the impacts of crime, which is something we don’t specifically talk about in the criminal justice realm, is very powerful. A willingness from both parties to see this through leads to a conclusion that’s more meaningful on both sides – that’s where the strength of this program is.”
Restorative Justice Victoria administers the program for VicPD.
Moffett is set up in the lobby of the Saanich Police Department (760 Vernon Ave.) this week to talk about restorative justice.
He says having a week to highlight the program is “a way of getting alternative thinking about justice out there and presenting the idea that not everyone should be demonized for a mistake that they made.
“Justice isn’t black and white. There is a grey and I think restorative justice fits nicely into that grey area.”