Face to Face

How restorative justice works.

By Cheryl Mahaffy

Three kids skateboard through the Innisfail cemetery on a whim, knocking down tombstones as they go. The romp continues on subsequent nights; more than 100 markers are upended before the culprits are caught. The community is outraged. Local RCMP refer the case to the Innisfail Restorative Justice Association. A meeting about the crime attracts 85 citizens, spitting angry. Three are chosen to represent the community at a justice panel involving the youth, their parents, others affected by the crime and two facilitators.

Emotions run high that evening. “You knocked over my newborn’s stone,” accuses a young mother, recalling the six-month-old she buried not long before. A widow sorrows at the damage to her husband’s grave. A box of tissue empties; a roll of toilet paper appears. The scared-stiff teens, now fully realizing what they’ve done, admit their unthinking stupidity and beg forgiveness as their parents join in the tears.

All agree that each errant skateboarder will write essays about three of the people whose tombstones he disturbed. The culprits also write apology letters to the local newspaper, voluntarily relinquishing anonymity. In the weeks following, victims come forward to help research their ancestors. Others pitch in to put the cemetery back to rights. The town begins to heal.

That’s restorative justice in action: victim and offender meet face to face, along with others affected by the case, and a facilitator or mediator helps them create a plan that holds the offender accountable and requires him to make things right. Unlike the justice typically meted out in the courts, this way of looking at crime and wrongdoing focuses on repairing harm rather than meting out punishment or satisfying abstract legal principles. Crime is seen as a violation not of the Crown, but of people and relationships.

Restorative justice focuses “on repairing harm when a wrongdoing or injustice occurs in a community,” according to the Alberta Restorative Justice Association (ARJA). The process involves some combination of “the victim, the offender, their social networks, justice agencies and the community.” Edmonton’s Mediation & Restorative Justice Centre elaborates: “Our criminal justice system’s current approach doesn’t address the impact of crime and the harm it causes to victims and communities. An offender may be punished and successfully complete his sentence, but this doesn’t necessarily meet victim needs, repair the harm done or increase the public’s sense of safety or satisfaction with the criminal justice system…. Restorative justice aims to repair and heal the harm caused by crime. The victim and the offender, along with their supports, and community members impacted by the crime, come together to join in a dialogue process.”

 “People think restorative justice is lenient, soft,” says Jean-Jacques (J. J.) Beauchamp, who helped facilitate the cemetery agreement. “I’ll tell you something: it’s hard to face your victim and say you’re sorry.” Beauchamp is the sparkplug behind restorative justice in Innisfail—and indeed across Alberta as chair of ARJA. Why does he put his energy here? “I worked in federal prison, and I saw people in there who should never have been there,” he says. “They just fell through the cracks.”

Restorative justice focuses on repairing wrongdoing’s harm rather than melting out punishment.

As a philosophy, restorative justice owes much to ancient cultures, including Aboriginals, who see wrongdoing as a community’s opportunity to help a person reflect on mistakes and learn. In its modern incarnation, restorative justice takes various forms. Although boundaries are blurry, some examples are victim/offender mediation (involving trained mediators as well as victims and offenders), family group conferencing (involving family and community in addition to the victims and offenders), healing circles (typically in an Aboriginal context) and truth and reconciliation commissions. Victim assistance and outreach to prisoners and ex-offenders also can use restorative justice principles. Each form of restorative justice has its own heritage. Victim-Offender Mediation Programs, for example, can be traced back to the early 1970s when a youth probation officer in Ontario convinced a judge that two youths convicted of vandalism should meet their victims. 

Recent changes to the Criminal Code of Canada and the Youth Criminal Justice Act urge the courts to refer appropriate cases to community groups such as Innisfail’s for “alternative measures” such as service work. In fact, the Criminal Code requires that “all sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances” be considered, “with particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.” 

“In years gone by, restorative justice may have been looked upon by at least some as more of an annoyance than a help,” says provincial court judge Bart Rosborough, who strongly supported this approach in his previous role as Crown prosecutor in Edmonton. “In the last 10 to 15 years, it has really started to grow and flourish as a healthy adjunct to the normal crime and punishment model we’ve seen in criminal court.” Rosborough would love to see alternative measures requested more often in his Wetaskiwin courtroom, particularly for Aboriginals, who are incarcerated at five times the rate of the population as a whole.

Restorative justice can be used for a variety of offences. In Innisfail, 20 volunteer facilitators tackle two types of cases: direct referrals from the RCMP with no charges laid, and youth justice referrals from the court under the Alternative Measures Program. They do not receive cases where public safety is at risk, or where the offender has not accepted responsibility for the crime. The association handled 138 cases last year. After sitting down separately with the parties involved, they facilitate a panel and then help to keep each offender accountable for completing the agreed plan. 

“In the court system, all you’d have is the judge and a couple of lawyers telling the kid not to say anything,” says Trevor Brady, who facilitated the cemetery panel with Beauchamp (and brought the toilet paper when the tissue ran out). “Whereas here, they’re taking responsibility face to face. It’s very powerful. Victims are heard. And the offenders are part of solution.”

A tired crew gathers at a hotel room in Nisku on a January evening. The board of ARJA has been meeting all day, and now I’m prodding them about their restorative work in communities from Lethbridge to Cold Lake. Why are they so committed to a movement that, frankly, deals with just a tiny fraction of Alberta’s disputes and legal cases?

One board member illustrates with this story: a woman lay awake night after night as the memory of an attempted home invasion replayed in her head: Someone pounds non-stop on the door. She dials 9-1-1 in panic and is told to stay in a far room with her children until help arrives. As they wait, the front door begins splintering.

Even after learning the intruder was just an inebriated 30-something separated from his buddies, wearing no coat and intent on escaping the cold, the woman’s terror did not go away. She asked to meet the man, hoping to erase the monster in her mind. The man agreed, and the session began with a replay of the 9-1-1 call. “He was a huge hulking fellow, and he wept through the whole tape,” the board member recalls. “He stood in front of her weeping, and she hugged him and said, ‘You’re not so tough.’ For her, it was incredibly healing.”

At its best, restorative justice brings such relief to both the victim and the offender. Like the Innisfail cemetery tombstone owners, victims often come armed to blast the offender, only to discover those words don’t need saying. “It’s the face of the crime, if you want to call it that,” says Beauchamp. “All of a sudden you see that the [offender] never had horns. They’re a person like you, and there’s a reason why they did what they did.” That doesn’t mean everyone will leave hand in hand, he adds, “but you’ll understand each other. This restores accountability. It gets a dialogue going. It’s restoring, not necessarily forgiving. Sometimes you’re lucky and get both.”


And restorative justice helps entire communities. In 1995, when Innisfail started pulling victims and offenders together, few cases were referred and it was “beat the bushes” to find supervisors for service hours. Now the local RCMP sends most youth to “J. J.’s program,” and everyone from the Co-op manager to the resident with a fence to paint asks for kids owing community service. Along the way, distrust has given way to understanding. The woman whose wishing well was destroyed by local pranksters has gained not only a better well, but also funds from two others the youth made and sold. 

Offenders who go the restorative justice route are less likely to cycle through again. A seven-year study by the Ministry of Justice in England found a 14–27 per cent reduction in reoffending, saving nine times the cost of delivering restorative justice programs.

Restorative justice also enables the offender to avoid the stigma of a criminal record. RCMP Sgt. Brent Sawatzky knows this from personal experience. “When I was 16, an RCMP member could have sent me and my buddy to court.” But he didn’t. “We weren’t bad kids, but we did bad things.” Sawatzky says he wouldn’t be in the RCMP now if he’d gone through the court system. A senior officer, Sawatzky is also on the ARJA board. After decades of “lock ’em up” policing, he says, he got tired of the revolving door. “I thought there’s got to be a better way than sending young people through the courts. They’re just anonymous in the system, and we’re not getting to the root of problem.”

Sawatzky found that better way while stationed in Saddle Lake. Like a growing number of First Nation communities, Saddle Lake operates healing circles that draw on Aboriginal heritage, involving elders and smudging and prayers. Sawatzky attended the circles to describe each crime’s impact on the RCMP, but also to speak “from the heart” as a community member and parent. Recently restationed in Cold Lake, he has applied for money to introduce restorative justice in surrounding communities.

Given the hours dedicated to each participant’s story and to ensuring follow-through, a restorative justice case can take longer than sending a person through court. Where community groups stand ready to take those cases, however, the process can save police and courts time and money. “I can easily sell it to the other constables,” says Richard Buisseret, the RCMP’s former liaison to the Innisfail Restorative Justice Society. “It’s a lot less work, because we don’t have to put together a big court package.” 

Best of all, restorative justice has the power to change lives, especially when the consequences fit both the crime and the perpetrator. A kid who “hates” old people is assigned 60 hours in a seniors home, discovers old folks “know a lot,” and heads off to train as a nurse, with an eye to working in palliative care. Someone who played with fire does service in a fire hall, goes through a drill dressed as the fire chief and becomes a volunteer firefighter. “The community reclaimed him,” Beauchamp says of that young man. “They brought him back.” 

When then-Solicitor General Frank Oberle cut the $351,000 Alberta Community Restorative Justice Grant in August 2011, he met a firestorm of protest. Harvey Voogd, a long-time grassroots organizer who at the time was managing restorative justice programs for Edmonton’s Mediation & Restorative Justice Centre, said he’d never seen an issue gain so much traction so quickly. Supporters included former Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Allan Wachowich and every candidate for the Alberta PC party leadership. Media reports pointed out that 88 per cent of the criminal offenders who went the restorative justice route in 2009 complied with the conditions set, at an average cost of just $3,000 per case.

On the other hand, postings to the CBC’s website included: “These idiot programs are designed to channel money to ‘non-profit’ leeches who tailor applicants and results to ensure continued funding.” And: “Crime needs punishment, not rehabilitation.”

In early September, the minister called in ARJA leaders, and after spluttering about the uproar, promised to find the $351,000 somehow within his department’s $1.9-billion budget. Yet those on the frontlines say it’s not enough. The provincial grant has remained unchanged since 1996, even as the number of communities served has grown, notes Betty Lynn-Benson, ARJA board member from Lethbridge. “It’s such a paltry sum—just a drop in the bucket. Most of us work on a shoestring budget.” 

For Lynn-Benson, the shoestring is not just frayed but broken. Her agency, Lethbridge Community Conflict Resolution Services, is shutting down this year due to lack of funds. “Words can’t even explain how saddened I am,” she says. “We’ve been told, especially by offenders, ‘You’re the first person who took the time to listen.’ When you look at what we’re putting back into the community and compare that to court costs, it’s a crying shame.”

Another agency may take over some Lethbridge community mediation cases—assuming Lynn-Benson’s volunteers agree to move there. Youth involved with the court will be tracked by probation officers, but there’ll be no time for careful intake, circles, conferencing and follow-up, she says. “They will just run the kids in and out.” 

Restorative justice doesn’t apply in cases where public safety is at risk or where the offender hasn’t accepted responsibility.

The board made the decision to close after years of personal sacrifice, especially by volunteers. “We have passionate mediators and facilitators but no money,” Lynn Benson says. “From the get-go, we’ve said volunteers should get an honorarium. It was on every grant application, but it always got cut.” Especially in rural areas, people involved in restorative justice are volunteers or minimally paid. In Innisfail, which typically operates on a $20,000 annual grant plus $6,000 for youth justice cases, facilitators receive $25 a case—barely enough to cover gas. Having volunteers on the frontlines keeps restorative justice rooted in community. But the field needs paid staff and better funding to mature. 

Sitting in mediator Mary Hicks’s living room with a circle of Albertans, I see the movement struggling and exploring new territory. While restorative justice is an alternative to the court system for youth and minor offences, it can be a therapeutic supplement to due legal process for more serious crimes. “In some ways, we’re starting a second generation of contemporary restorative justice practice in this country,” says Alan Edwards, who with Jennifer Haslett facilitates restorative justice circles for serious and violent crimes across the prairies. “I think a lot of the first generation was fuelled by passion and conviction and enthusiasm. The second generation needs to marry that with some really good solid training and theory and research. I’m excited by what we could be—and scared by what we are not.”

Tamie Perryment, program development manager at the Alberta Conflict Transformation Society (ACTS), agrees. “One of primary principles of restorative justice is to not do further harm,” she notes. “We need standards and best practices and training to ensure a certain level of care when working with people.” Or as Beauchamp puts it: “There’s nothing worse than screwing up. Because you’re screwing up somebody’s life.”

There’s also the challenge of convincing police and courts to team up with restorative justice. In Edmonton, groups using restorative approaches receive a steady stream of referrals, thanks in part to a sympathetic Crown prosecutor’s office, where Dave Hill has a unique role as coordinator of restorative justice initiatives. Yet even there, the percentage of so-called “diverted” cases is minuscule. One of the sticking points is system complexity, Perryment says. “A file probably goes through 20 hands. We’re trying to impact the lives of youth and help victims feel safe in their community, and we end up talking about files and how they get referred. When I think about trying to change the system, I just shake my head.”

Edwards does acknowledge the good in the judicial system. Many offenders tell him that jail, with its counselling and learning opportunities, was the best thing that ever happened to them. “The criminal justice system has already been influenced by restorative justice,” he says. 

It’s also important to ensure that restorative justice meets victims’ needs. Despite restorative justice proponents’ best intentions, focus and funding are still more offender-centred. Victim services units in many communities hesitate to refer their clients. “They don’t want the victims reoffended by going through the restorative justice process,” says Debbie Nowakowski, ARJA board member. “But we won’t even suggest victim involvement if we don’t think it will be healing for the victim.” 

Other victims, such as big-city store managers hit with shoplifting, don’t want to take the time to meet face to face. Those are missed opportunities, Nowakowski says: “Studies show that if a young person meets the person they’ve harmed and puts a face to the impact, they’re not going to commit that crime again.” 

Restorative justice is exploring new territory, heading into schools, drug courts and community leagues. The King’s University College in Edmonton, for example, was the first post-secondary school in Canada to use restorative justice for student discipline, after two staff members trained with Howard Zehr, “grandfather” of the US restorative justice movement. Students in some Edmonton-area elementary schools are learning to expect “circle talk” when things go awry. “We need to use this daily,” says ACTS coordinator Sue Hopgood, who leads that project. 

In hope of achieving that future, there’s a move to create a Canadian Restorative Justice Consortium with the aim of “giving every Canadian access to restorative justice programs.” In Alberta, meanwhile, ARJA advocates enshrining restorative justice in legislation, so that last fall’s funding bombshell can’t be repeated. The association is also seeking funds to create a toolkit and helpline for local groups struggling to stay afloat. Government support is crucial. “I believe the community needs to develop restorative justice, but government needs to listen and ensure we have credibility and best practices and accountability and training,” Perryment says.

Is restorative justice worthy of public dollars? Beauchamp has no doubt. “It does work—you bet. Not all the time. But we give offenders a chance. What they do with it, that’s theirs to decide. Sometimes it takes a whole life. And when you see a kid turn his life around, it’s amazing. There is no price on that.” #

Cheryl Mahaffy lives in Edmonton. Her most recent AV story was about an encouraging therapy for Parkinson’s disease (Nov 2010).


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