Healing through justice

Restorative justice initiatives provide an alternative to jail

Amidst overflowing jails and debates over tougher crimes, one alternative approach to dealing with crime stands out from the crowd.

The restorative justice approach – often called community justice – is an alternative to the traditional justice system for those who commit property and minor assault crimes. It seeks to involve each of the three actors in a crime – perpetrator, victim and community – in the resolution.

“The community process tends to be more on how we repair the harm and repay the community for something that you’ve done,” said Dave Brickwood, executive director of Community and Aboriginal Justice with Manitoba Justice.

Manitoba began incorporating community justice programs into the judicial system in the 1980s.

The hardest thing for offenders to do is to face somebody they’ve done harm to.

Veronica Joseph, Mediation Services Winnipeg

Now, Manitoba crown attorneys select which clients can participate in community justice. These are most often first time offenders.

After being directed towards restorative justice programs, offenders get diverted to various programs throughout the city. One of them is Mediation Services, the venue taken by those clients who wish to discuss the crime.

Remorse and a willingness to understand are crucial components for restorative justice.

“The hardest thing for offenders to do is to face somebody they’ve done harm to, look the victim directly in the eye,” said Veronica Joseph, court co-ordinator and mediator for Mediation Services Winnipeg.

“We bring the parties together to talk about the incident. Through that you may get some new information and get a better understanding of what impact it had on the other person, why it happened,” said Joseph.

Both parties must agree to a resolution. This often takes as little as one meeting, said Joseph.

Restorative justice is much cheaper than the court system, said Brickwood. About 2,000 cases a year get diverted to this system, and there is a push towards considering it as a first option in all eligible first offences.

It is also more conducive towards women, said Shannon Sampert, co-president of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg politics professor. An advocacy group for female prisoners’ rights, Elizabeth Fry is pushing for a more women-friendly justice system.

“The majority of women that are in jail aren’t violent, their issues are economic issues,” she said. “Restorative justice recognizes these issues and has much more of a success in making women not feel shame.”

“It’s not an extreme punishment.”

A main concern with community justice is whether restorative justice answers the victim’s rights to vindication.

“Sometimes they think the other person is just getting a slap on the wrist,” said Joseph.

“When it goes to court, they’re only concerned about the facts; we’re concerned about the feelings.”

Of all cases referred to Mediation Services in 2007-2008, 45.5 per cent officially ended with a resolution.

Published in Volume 63, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 5, 2009)

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