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Restorative justice under threat

|Written By Judy Van Rhijn
Despite a wealth of success stories, high user satisfaction, and the heartfelt efforts of enthusiastic volunteers, many fear the high tide of the restorative justice movement has already passed, as opportunities dwindle and funds drain away.
Victims do not always feel satisfied if judges are forced to im-pose sentences on the accused, says Tiffani Murray. Photo: Jen Buter

The only hope for many programs is to become entirely youth focused, leaving their potential to assist perpetrators and victims of serious crime untapped.

Currently, the typical profile of restorative justice programs operating in the province is a community-based, volunteer project relying on annual provincial funding or a hodge podge of grants from various councils and charities. Even with the constant threat of having the rug pulled out from under them, these services strive to provide a safe environment in which to bring the accused and the victimized person together and form a plan for repairing the harm done.

 The only offenders involved are the ones who show remorse and want to make amends.

"Victims get a lot out of seeing the remorse," says Tiffani Murray, who is the lawyer and caseworker at the Collaborative Justice Project in Ottawa. "When someone is victimized, they ask 'Who is this person who did this to me?' and 'Do they even care?' They want the offender to know the ways they hurt them - the ways their life has been affected."

An evaluation of the Ottawa program by Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada found a satisfaction rate of both victims and offenders of roughly 90 per cent.

"We see the project has an effect on the offender, for the first time allowing them to see the harm and so, hopefully, eliminating the risk of them harming again," says Murray. "By the end they have gained empathy and understanding. They don't do that through the criminal justice system, and they certainly don't do that through jail. Yet programs like ours fight for funding, and it's very frustrating."

The only area where restorative justice seems to be expanding is in dealing with young offenders. In July 2006, the McGuinty government announced plans to double the number of youth justice committees (YJCs) in the province, increasing the number of restorative justice projects from 23 to 46. At the same time, it announced a doubling of funding to those services.

The Lanark County Community Justice Program has been one service rescued from financial straits by its selection as one of the new sites. It will be the first regular funding the program has ever had. It has operated as a volunteer organization since 1997, picking up some money here and there from Lanark County Council and the United Way.

For the last three years it relied on a research grant from Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, which was evaluating the efficiency of the system with young offenders and adults. As yet no report has been issued and funding has not been renewed.

"The money ran out in March," says volunteer facilitator and treasurer Nancy Bowman. "Our administrator worked part-time from March to July and then she worked for free until August when a Trillium Grant became available."

After nine years of struggling, Bowman can be forgiven for thinking she must have read the government announcements wrongly. She was elated to find that she hadn't.

"We will combine the funding to put on an administrator and a program co-ordinator, to provide assistance with public education, train volunteers and maintain the roster." On the prospect of ever having enough money to pay the volunteers she is cautious. "There's something to be said for everybody coming together voluntarily."

While she is grateful for the funding, Bowman is concerned that there is no money available until a project has already started up.

"We had to have that nine years of scrimping, saving, and scraping by to be able to compete on the tender against an established service. There was a lot of unpaid work by a lot of people."

Because of the focus on youth crime, the programs now address mostly minor offences, even though some programs were specifically designed to tackle serious offences. The Ottawa project used to deal exclusively with serious crime. The Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada evaluation found that the restorative approach had been successfully applied to cases of serious crime at the pre-sentence stage.

Now the Ottawa project is funded solely by provincial Child and Youth Services.

"The crimes are much less serious, mostly by young people, but the service is still very effective," says Murray. "The victims are sensitive to the age of the offender. They appreciate their lack of maturity and experience, especially if it's a first time offender."

St. Leonard's Community Services in the London, Ont., region is also youth-oriented. It has been lucky enough to have consistent youth-related funding from the provincial government.

"A full array of offences are not presented to us," says executive director Peter Aharan, "but some of our staff have training with homicide and sexual offences where it has been found to be extremely effective. Restorative justice is more of a human experience. It is not defined by age. It is predicated on the value of an individual."

He finds it interesting that the process has its roots in aboriginal traditions not only in Canada but on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

"The fact that two groups of people in ancient traditions used the same process strikes me as saying that something about it has real validity in and of itself. It is victim focused and problem focused," he says.

Aharan does not believe that statistics on recidivism are valid measures of the program's worth.

"This simple process resolves cases in a very appropriate way where the court system doesn't. There's value in that for the accused, but mostly for the victim. When the justice system deals with minor offences, the victimized person is not really involved at all."

In fact the provincial government's statistics point to a success rate of over 80 per cent in preventing first offenders from reoffending.

Bowman's personal opinion is that restorative justice works best with youth and first-time offenders.

"In the larger criminal justice matters, the wounds of the people are deeper. We rarely deal with anything in the federal realm that attracts a sentence of greater than two years."

For this reason, Lanark was consistently told to look for provincial funding.

In fact, the federal restorative justice movement seems to have ground to a halt. The restorative justice concepts in the sentencing regime of the Criminal Code are about to be severely tampered with by proposed legislation introducing more mandatory minimum sentences and reducing opportunities for conditional sentencing.

Murray fears that not only perpetrators but victims of crime will be impacted by the changes. Murray helps the victim, the offender, and community representatives come to an agreement that represents the victim's wishes and what the offender has agreed to do. This resolution agreement is presented to the sentencing judge, who almost always takes it into account.

"A lot of times the victims are so satisfied with the process that they will request no jail time for the offender," says Murray. "They see that it will be harmful to the offender's progress and, from more selfish motives, his or her ability to fulfil the terms of the agreement."

Murray points out that if judges are forced to impose imprisonment, the victim's wishes are not satisfied.

"More jail is the easy way out, it really is," says Murray. "What does the government think? They're going to come out of jail eventually. What will they have learnt in jail as opposed to what they learn in our program where there are real consequences to their actions? It doesn't make sense on any level."

Aharan believes that the perception of restorative justice as a soft option is incorrect.

"Even in a hardline person's eyes, in many respects this is a tough process for the accused. The person is more squarely confronted with their behaviour," he says.

Bowman believes restorative justice is also more cost effective in the long run.

"There is the simple cost of incarceration for a start. The human cost is hard to measure, but we are repairing

harm not only in victims, but in offenders and the larger community that would otherwise go unresolved."

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