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COVER STORY: Mending Fences

  - Rob Newell photo illustration
— image credit: Rob Newell photo illustration

The beads from her Buddha necklace scattered on the pavement while Jane was being thrown to the ground and kicked in the head and side.

She sustained a concussion, black eye and significant facial swelling in the blind-side attack that was triggered by a visual of Jane talking to the aggressor's boyfriend. She had never met the woman and was unaware of the relationship.

“It was a scary, scary experience. I was on the ground trying to cover my face and head," recalls Jane, who, along with the offender, was a teenager at the time of the incident.

The evidence plainly in front of her every time she looked in the mirror or painfully chewed her food, Jane, described by her mom as a pacifist, was more tortured by the thought of pressing charges.

“There was a lot of pressure from people, from my family, who said: ‘She needs to get what’s coming to her.’”

Jane (name has been changed) was told by the police officer assigned to the case that there would be a lot of paperwork, and that she probably wouldn’t hear back about a court date for half a year.

“Just the whole process of going through the court system —  it’s an intimidating thing,” says Jane. “It doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity for closure.”

She spent a week lying in bed, vacillating with her feelings and labouring under the burden of social responsibility.

In the end, Jane decided to take an alternate route on the path to justice — and, eventually, found a sense of peace that often eludes victims of crime.

 

***

Jane put her trust in the provincially renowned North Shore Restorative Justice Society— a pre-charge, court diversion program where offenders and victims collectively decide on how to mend the emotional and material damage.

In Jane’s case, and just like other files involving criminal offences that arrive at the NSRJS’s doorstep, it was the discretion of the police officer to decide whether or not the offender fit the criteria for the program.

Both parties, the victim and the perpetrator, have to agree to take part in the process, with the offender also showing remorse from the outset.

Equally as important to the outcome, the two versions of the incident need to line up — and the process has to be victim centred.

“When you look at the formal criminal justice system, everyone naturally tends to focus on the offender because it's about who did it, proving they did it and what punishment do they deserve,” says NSRJS executive director Teresa Canning. “The victim is really more, in my eyes, used as a witness to prove something happened.”

In the often exhausting court process, adds Canning, the victim’s voice can become lost.  At the same time, she is sensitive to the fact that restorative justice is not for every victim of crime.

“It depends on the person's values, how they were brought up, their past experiences — also, the type of crime, of course,” says Canning, who holds a degree in criminology.

Along the restorative justice route a meeting is arranged between the victim and the offender, who, in some cases, haven’t come face-to-face since the incident. A lot of the times, the victim and the offender know each other.

"We get a lot of fraud with youth and family, youth and grandparents, youth and parents," explains Canning. "You do have a lot of crimes where people are connected. That's one of the key reasons that people chose restorative justice, because they want to heal a relationship."

The non-profit NSRJS operates out of an “in-kind,” shoebox-sized space in the city, which means the face-to-face meetings are held off-site in a private room at one of the local recreation centres.

Two volunteer facilitators, with backgrounds that range from sociologists to lawyers to youth workers, guide the session. Meanwhile, support people for both parties are also present.

Jane’s parents and a friend were seated next to her when she faced her attacker for the first time. Her mom told The Outlook she was impressed by how structured and methodically planned out the meeting was.

“We later realized that we were requested to arrive 20 minutes earlier than the offender and her support people so that we would have time to settle ourselves and try to relax a bit,” said Jane’s mom.

A circle of comfortable chairs with everyone’s name on them had been set up — but no table. This is intentional. Everything is laid out in the open.

“I was nervous. It’s a lot of emotions coming together,” says Jane, who was wearing her Buddha necklace that her mom had restrung.

At first she felt awkward sitting there with the offender and her support people. At the same time, Jane also wanted her to feel comfortable.

Each of them was given an opportunity to tell their story — uninterrupted from start to finish.

“I got to see her perspective,” says Jane.

They mutually decided the atonement would be community service.

When it was all said and done, the two young women hugged.

“It was really amazing — you felt this release,” said Jane of the restorative justice experience.

***

Another NSRJS case reveals the emotional collateral damage a crime can leave in its wake.

A local loss prevention officer, who, for privacy reasons, will remain anonymous, spoke to The Outlook about how apprehending a shoplifting suspect left a negative impact on him.

He was left with two options after the older man had been caught stealing several times: Press charges or take part in the restorative justice program.

By sitting down with the man, he was able to help him understand where he was coming from.

"I just wanted him to know it was nothing personal, I was just doing my job," said the loss prevention officer, who today remains in contact with the older man.

Those in the field say restorative justice helps restores harmony to a community after a crime has been committed.

One of Canning's favourite stories happened many years ago when an activity called "fence bowling" was popular among teenagers. Essentially, young men, who are often intoxicated, bodycheck a fence and see how many panels they can knock down.

"In this case they decided to do it on the street where they lived and, of course, got caught," says Canning. "There was a huge amount of upset. The parents were ashamed because it was their neighbour's fence."

In the restorative justice group meeting, it was decided the boys would rebuild the fence.

"But 16-year-old boys don't really know how to build a fence that would stay standing," says Canning.

So the male homeowner, who was the vandalism victim, and the boys and their father worked side-by-side to mend the fence. The boys also paid for all the materials.

"It allowed the boys to feel good and the parents to breathe a sigh of relief," says Canning. "And everyone was so happy that they ended up having a barbecue lunch together when it was done."

Another area in the NSRJS's repertoire of services is settling garden-variety neighbourhood disputes: dogs barking, trees encroaching on property lines, etc.

"The neighborhood disputes, in all honesty, take way more time because there is so much history. People have lived together for long, there is so much backstory.They are a lot trickier than any criminal file we work on," laughs Canning.

The NSRJS also hosts community dialogues that relevant to all sectors of the population.

On the one-year anniversary of the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, the NSRJS hosted a session where 30 people, ranging in age from 8 to 80, came to talk the lingering after-effects.

"There were a lot of seniors that were terrified of youth," says Canning. "We had so many that lived on Lonsdale say that they would not leave their homes after dark because they were worried about youth."

Lindy Pfeil is the NSRJS's coordinator of school programs, which launched last fall after a pattern was noticed: Many of the files the NSRJS was receiving had turned criminal after originating in the school yards.

"A lot of files that come in it seems like there is a disconnect between the youths and their community," says Pfeil.

The focus of program is to create a sense of belonging through student sharing circles and having the school community come together to build a holistic approach to preventing conflict.

Pfeil, who has a background in education and psychology, says it's important the students learn more about each other in a way that's not perpetuating the bully or the class clown.

On Pink Shirt Day, also known as anti-bullying day, the NSRJS will host a youth dialogue at Mountainside Secondary at 6 p.m.

The Feb. 26 event will focus on conversations around "Identity" as it relates to bullying.

"Usually when people are bullied — whether youth or adult — it's about how they look, what they sound like, the colour of their skin, so many things like that," said NSRJS program manager and event organizer Christianne Paras. "So what we are hoping is that it's going to be a conversation about who you are, and it's going to be based on empowerment, inclusion and acceptance."

***

Arson, assault and mischief were the three most common offences, among a total of 84 files referred to the NSRJS last year from the North Vancouver RCMP, the West Vancouver Police Department, social services agencies and community members.

Those cases touched on issues of mental health, drug addiction, anger issues and family history.

Canning reports an increase in the seriousness of files the NSRJS receives. Which isn’t necessarily to say that serious crime on the North Shore is on the rise, but rather the 17-year-old local restorative justice program has gained credibility in the policing community.

“We use to see cases of kids caught stealing a candy bar. We haven't seen those lately,” says Canning.

The NSRJS team works with police officers to educate them on the program, and encourages them to take their own informal measures when they come across a relatively innocuous crime.

As WVPD spokesman Const. Jeff Palmer explains, depending on the circumstances, restorative justice is “another tool in the belt” that police officers can consider as a viable alternative to pressing charges.

“Restorative Justice offers a resolution much more quickly than the court system,” says Palmer.

The NSRJS notes that close to 70 per cent of their files involve young offenders. Under Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, it’s stated that serious interventions such as incarceration should be reserved for more serious crimes.

“If you have apprehended, in particular, a young person it compels considerations of extrajudicial measures,” said Palmer.

Those could include informal warnings, Crown cautions, police referrals to community programs or agencies and referrals to pre-charge screening programs.

North Van RCMP spokesman Cpl. Richard De Jong spoke about the pluses of the restorative justice program.

"They are extremely valued when it comes to assisting police and resolving issues that are better handled outside the traditional justice system,” said De Jong. "Often with young offenders it is a wake-up call to the justice system.”

In terms of police discretion in each individual case, the officer will determine, in consultation with the young offender’s guardian, if poor judgment was exercised or if the crime was a one-off and therefore meets the criteria for an extrajudicial measure such as restorative justice.

As for whether or not that young person is likely to reoffend, said De Jong: "Generally, we are hopeful that they have learned from their mistakes."

The realization that the offender is accountable to the victim can often instill a change of behaviour, he added.

Historically, the police have always had discretion in how investigations move forward. According to De Jong, officers have been employing restorative justice measures for low-level offences, mainly property mischief, long before it was labeled as such.

"We knew at the time that it would just tie up the justice system,” said De Jong. "That's not a good use of taxpayers’ dollars."

***

One of the biggest misconceptions around restorative justice, says Dr. Brenda Morrison, an expert in the field, is that it's soft on crime or a slap on the wrist.

In her research, Morrison, a professor at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Restorative Justice, has found recidivism for certain crimes can be reduced when this practice is applied.

While working at the Australian National University she co-conducted a randomized controlled trial that found the rate of reoffence for youth committing minor and serious assaults diminished by 25 per cent through the use of restorative justice.

A May 2013 report from the Correctional Service of Canada, involving a preliminary examination of the impact of restorative justice opportunities, revealed the following conclusion: "Although the rates of reoffending are too low to detect a reliable difference, the trend suggests that after one year of release, offenders involved in face to face victim-offender mediation had fewer returns to custody with an offence than a matched comparison group …"

Even those responsible for more serious felonies, including murder, can use restorative justice as an effective tool during the rehabilitation process.

"If you can commit such a serious crime and you haven't made amends, you carry that for the rest of your life," says Morrison.

She points to the case of former Squamish resident Katy Hutchison, whose husband died after being assaulted by two young men in 1997. Ryan Aldridge, who was later charged with manslaughter and given a five-year sentence, insisted on meeting Hutchison on the evening of his arrest, after seeing her break down in a police videotape.

Aldridge is now married with a child. A few years after his release he spoke at schools and other events alongside Hutchinson about the experience.

"It was a huge gift to Ryan, and it helped him move on with his life," says Morrison.

She explains how emotional details that are important to the victim's family can sometimes be concealed in a traditional courtroom setting.

"They try to minimize emotion in the courtroom, because their job is to focus on the facts," says Morrison. "It's hard to get the truth if they [offenders] know they are going to be punished for their behavior. These sort of things about their loved ones, [the family] might want to know about their last words."

The roots of restorative justice can be traced back to aboriginal healing traditions.

"Only when we came up with this idea of a state-based model of justice did we become more punitive as a whole," says Morrison, who adds, ultimately, it's about striking a balance between restoration and restitution.

Canada is considered a pioneer in when it comes to modern day restorative justice practices.

According to the SFU Centre for Restorative Justice, in the 1970s, Canada became the first nation in the world to offer a victim/offender reconciliation program, which was initiated by the Mennonite community in Kitchener, Ontario.

Since then many communities across Canada and the United States have started community-based, volunteer-driven restorative justice programs.

Closer to home, Jane can confidently say the restorative justice process has helped heal her emotional wounds.

"If you want closure, it's a great way to work through it," she says. "It helped me let go of the anger."

As for any suggestion that her offender got off easy, Jane offers her own perspective.

"That's something hard, to have someone look you in the eye, and admit what they have done and give you an heartfelt apology. I really felt that," she says.

mspitale@northshoreoutlook.com

 

 

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