Building safe and resilient communities with restorative justice

To the teenagers who did it, it seemed like a harmless prank: lighting some firecrackers and placing them in the mailbox of a randomly-chosen house, ringing the doorbell, then running and hiding across the way to watch what happened next.

What the boys who planted the firecrackers didn’t know at the time is the house they chose belonged to an elderly couple, and that the man had heart problems that could have been triggered by the sudden explosions outside their front door.

The boys also didn’t know – until they met with the victims through a restorative justice program administered by the Medicine Hat John Howard Society – that the elderly couple had also been living in fear, thinking they had been targeted for some reason.

The Medicine Hat Police Service had initially charged the boys with mischief, but the case was diverted to the local youth justice committee instead of going to court. By taking part in the restorative justice process, the boys realized the harm they had caused after the victims had a chance to tell their story. The victims came away reassured, after learning from the boys that they weren’t targeted.

“The kids experienced remorse, but more importantly, the elderly couple regained their sense of safety,” said Gary Straub, executive director of the Medicine Hat John Howard Society.

The Medicine Hat John Howard Society is one of many organizations in the province that receive funding from Alberta Justice and Solicitor General to deliver restorative justice programs. Restorative justice holds offenders accountable for their actions while at the same time giving victims and the community a voice in the criminal justice process.

“There are two things I often hear from victims: They want to know, ‘Why me?’ The second is that they want an apology. In the traditional justice system, there’s little opportunity for a victim to speak with an offender, not at an offender.”

Restorative justice principles are enshrined in Canada’s youth justice system. The Youth Criminal Justice Act authorizes the establishment of youth justice committees comprised of community members as an alternative to youth court. To be eligible the young person must accept responsibility for the offence and the Crown prosecutor has to agree the accused can be held properly accountable for their actions through an extrajudicial sanction.

In Medicine Hat, more than 1,000 youths have been referred to the Restorative Justice Project since its inception in 2006.

“Very few have been referred a second time,” said Straub, touching on one of the key impacts of the restorative justice processes:  they aim to prevent young people from re-offending.

Referring cases to youth justice committees also eases the burden on the justice system by diverting cases that don’t necessarily need to be heard in court and don’t require a court-imposed sentence. Youth justice committees have the flexibility to apply a wide range of sanctions tailored to helping a young person recognize the harm they’ve caused, while holding them accountable for their actions.

“The goal was to be able to have some latitude, to think outside the usual processes and strive to achieve meaningful consequences,” Straub said.

Sanction options available to the committee include community service, completing a written assignment or interview related to the offence, participating in community-based activities and taking classes.

Programs and classes give youths a positive alternative to the activities that landed them in trouble, while community service can strengthen their sense of empathy. Gaining a better understanding of how others feel, said Straub, is a big step toward preventing young people from reoffending.

“Sometimes the exercise is trying to plant that seed: to engage that young person in pro-social citizenry,” he said.

“These are beautiful, wonderful people who do good things, when given the opportunity to do good things.”

Communities across Canada and around the world are marking Restorative Justice Week from November 20 to 27.


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