Brazil explores Innisfail’s restorative justice program

After 700 resolved cases, the Innisfail Restorative Justice Society knows a thing or two about the value of restorative justice. Representatives from the central Alberta restorative justice program are now taking that knowledge to Brazil.

Later this month, founder and director of the Innisfail Restorative Justice Society, JJ Beauchamp, and colleague Mary Hicks will be travelling to Puerto Alegre, Costa del Sol and Sao Paulo to teach local social workers and judicial officials about the Innisfail program and help them implement restorative justice programs in their respective cities.

This is the second trip to the country for the Innisfail reps. A visit to Brazil last November was organized after an instructor from Simon Fraser University approached JJ following his presentation at a restorative justice conference. The two kept in touch and after two years of discussions, JJ and Mary were welcomed in Puerto Alegre by a local member of the judiciary. Their visit also included a tour of the local prison. Officials there are interested in implementing a restorative justice program in the facility.

JJ Beachamp (far right) and his Brazilian hosts outside the Ministry of Justice.

JJ Beauchamp (far right) and his Brazilian hosts outside the Ministry of Justice.

“They couldn’t fathom how easy it really is when everyone is working together,” recalls JJ of his conversations with the Brazilian officials. Of particular interest to them was the relationship between the Innisfail Restorative Justice Society and local police.

“The RCMP are very highly regarded over there,” he says. “For us to be working with the RCMP, the Crown and even defense lawyers is quite amazing to them. I told them the more the community works together, the better it is.”

The Innisfail program is frequently contacted by law enforcement or criminal justice partners, both before and after individuals have been charged. Offences range from vandalism to theft to assault. Everyone involved believes in the value of the program in helping offenders understand the impact of their actions and the importance of making reparations. More than focusing on the criminal violation, restorative justice concentrates on the harm done to victims and repairing the relationship with victim and community. It also empowers victims to have a say in how a matter is resolved.

The success of the Innisfail Restorative Justice Society can be measured by its longevity in the community (19 years) and the number dedicated volunteers in its ranks (14 members, some of whom are former participants of the programs) as well as its close partnerships with the law enforcement and criminal justice communities.

JJ admits to challenges, but the success they’ve had in Innisfail far outweighs any bumps they’ve hit along the way. He speaks proudly about former program participants who are now facilitators themselves – one youth even became a minister – and he enthusiastically rattles off several successful resolutions.

Take the case of a youth who was arrested for vandalizing vehicles. With only $17-worth of damage, the victim didn’t understand the value of restorative justice and was prepared to leave the meeting with the youth. A comment from the youth prompted the victim to realize that while there was little monetary damage, this was nonetheless a crime with a consequence. The youth siphoned gas from his vehicle, and with an ill wife, the victim explained he often needs access to his vehicle to transport her to the hospital. The realization of the impact of the crime suddenly became real for both the victim and the youth. As reparation, the youth was required to do some landscaping work for a retirement residence.

JJ Beachamp (far right) and his Brazilian hosts outside the Ministry of Justice.

Brazil aims to create “cities of peace.”

These face-to-face meetings between victim and offender are the most impactful. It can be a difficult and emotional process for everyone involved. Oftentimes – and understandably – there is anger on the part of the victims and community, and embarrassment and fear on the part of the offender. Answering for one’s actions is never easy, but therein lies the power of restorative justice.

JJ is quick to point out that youth who go through his program aren’t bad kids, “they just screwed up,” he says. “There is an extremely big impact when you do this kind of work. It’s not a quick fix, but to me it’s worth it just to see the change. In court you never see this.”

Restorative Justice Week is marked across Canada November 15 to 22.

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