(This article was translated from the French.)

The trial is over, the sentence was handed down months ago, but Jeanne (not her real name) still doesn’t feel the closure she had been hoping for since the whole ordeal began. Many unanswered questions remain, and she agonizes over them every day. Why her? Why did this man decide to violate her intimate space? Her distress is isolating her, because she feels nobody understands her. Her friends try to reassure her as best they can. The legal process has followed its course, and her aggressor has been sentenced. So why are this individual’s motives still being questioned? Isn’t all of that finished?

Then there are members of certain Indigenous communities who live in the hope of regaining some measure of peace. They want to rebuild positive relationships among themselves despite the violence, abuse and isolation they have been experiencing for ages, generation after generation. There must be a way for them to express their suffering and take steps toward healing, without having everything come crashing down.

Antoine (not his real name) has been serving his sentence for the last two years. Though he takes part in a social rehabilitation program, he is convinced that once he is released, he will be shunned on account of his criminal record. His family no longer visits him. They are fed up of all the trouble he has caused. He has never offered any apologies for the crimes he committed, whether to his victims or to the people close to him. He is wondering what the future holds and what his role will be in society.

Restorative justice proposes different approaches for each of the situations described. The purpose is to rebuild broken ties, all while considering the needs of both victim and offender and on a strictly voluntary basis. The ties we’re talking about are numerous and complex. They include re-establishing a positive dialogue with family and friends, and reconnecting with larger society. Restorative justice is also about rebuilding self confidence, confidence in others, and reasserting control over one’s life. Often, the crime committed affects those involved well beyond the more obvious injuries. Restorative justice addresses all of these aspects.

The steps of the restorative justice process are well defined. They generally consist of several preparation meetings where the individuals concerned sit down one-on-one with a facilitator. They attempt to identify the source of their distress. They learn to put words to their suffering and express what they are feeling in an attempt to overcome it. During the process, when they feel ready, one or more meetings will be arranged between the victim and the aggressor (or an aggressor unconnected to the crime in question). The meetings are conducted under the watchful eye of a facilitator. The victim can meet with the person who committed the crime (as recommended by Correctional Service Canada and alternative justice organizations) or with a person who has committed a similar crime (as offered by the Centre de services de justice réparatrice, in a group setting or individually). These encounters are carefully prepared, for it is essential that the victim not be re-victimized.

Restorative justice also encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions. Participants derive no tangible benefits from the process; their sentence is not reduced, their conditions of supervision remain in place, and they are not granted parole simply for having taken part in the process. Furthermore, if the facilitator concludes that the offender’s intentions are not consistent with the objectives of the restorative justice process, the offender is not allowed to continue. Facilitators are particularly sensitive to family violence cases and seek to avoid any harmful effects whatsoever to the family and the victim.

Restorative justice is also about rebuilding self confidence, confidence in others, and reasserting control over one’s life.

There is no financial benefit for victims, but they stand to gain much more: taking back control over their lives by expressing their suffering and emotions and obtaining answers to their questions. The facilitators, who are volunteers, ensure that nobody exerts power over anyone else. This entails establishing a respectful dialogue based on truth and mutual respect. In some cases, the meetings aid in the healing process.

The Centre de services en justice réparatrice (CSJR) has been working with victims and offenders for over 15 years. It trains facilitators, explores the latest research in the field and raises public awareness. It prioritizes an integrated approach and collaborates with various organizations to ensure understanding and provide overall support.

It was not by chance that the CSJR was invited to take part in recent consultation sessions held by the Department of Justice Canada and the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. This federal government initiative to transform the criminal justice system has multiple objectives: improving the efficiency of the system, considering the needs of vulnerable populations, ensuring respect of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, increasing transparency, accountability and oversight within the federal corrections system, and increasing access to restorative justice. These honourable objectives reflect the public’s expectations. They are worth further consideration given that the criminal justice system is going through rough times due to its complexity, costs, accessibility and our perceptions of it.

It is important to bear in mind that the objectives of repairing harm caused to the victim and to the community, as well as encouraging offenders to accept responsibility for their crimes, are set out in section 718 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Therefore, restorative justice is undeniably very attractive to governments. Several challenges nonetheless remain.

Though victims sometimes forgive the offender at the end of the process, the primary purpose is to provide them with a forum to express their experiences, ask their own questions and possibly express their anger and frustrations.

First, restorative justice is often misunderstood, and there is significant apprehension and misconception around it. For instance, some feel that governments are interested in restorative justice for the sole purpose of reducing the number of criminal cases at the expense of the victims and their needs and interests. However, as practised within the CSJR, the restorative justice process begins only after the sentence has been handed down, and sometimes even after it has been served. Others believe that the victim is required to forgive the offender. This is not quite how it works. Though the victim sometimes forgives the offender at the end of the process, the primary purpose is to provide them with a forum to express their experiences, ask their own questions and possibly express their anger and frustration. At no time are the victims made to bear the weight of other people’s expectations. Given these fears and perceptions, an awareness and education campaign aimed at the criminal justice system and members of the public would be beneficial.

Second, facilitators require extensive training. In addition, their services are required over a broad territory. Limited access to restorative justice services is more of an issue in outlying regions. However, the Quebec government has acknowledged the situation and is dedicating resources to ensure more services can be provided.

Third, there is a persistent public perception that a community organization, overseen by a volunteer board and making use of volunteer staff, somehow isn’t professional. The view is that professionalism can only exist when services are provided by paid employees or by public organizations. And yet, organizations like the CSJR are non-profit corporations that are accountable to their members, their donors and to governments.

These organizations ensure the delivery of quality services through rigorous processes that cover the recruitment of facilitators, their training and their supervision. Volunteers that facilitate restorative justice sessions come from social science fields. Beyond their training, the life skills of these facilitators is also a major factor taken into consideration. Respect, empathy, and the ability to ensure safety and equality in their work are core values. The community character of restorative justice should not cast doubt on these initiatives. Moreover, it encourages citizen engagement and collaboration.

To maintain the participation of community members and the respect of the parties involved, there is a last recommendation to make to governments.

From time to time, government budget priorities require that each activity and task be quantified, imposing results that are defined in advance and applying timelines to them. In the same way, a trend towards systematizing restorative justice practices can hurt the rhythm of a restorative process. Government officials, while showing an openness to restorative justice, must resist the temptation to institutionalize these initiatives and box them into a purely accounting logic. Restorative justice must maintain its human character and remain an accessible solution that privileges citizen engagement.

Despite these challenges, restorative justice is a promising avenue in many respects: rebuilding constructive relationships, re-establishing self-confidence and regaining trust in others/in the community generate inestimable benefits to society.

This article was written in collaboration with Estelle Drouvin, coordinator of the CSJR.

This article is part of the Widening the Lens on Criminal Justice Reform special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock / Peter Buckwalter

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Johanne Vallée
Johanne Vallée is an ambassador for the Centre de services de justice réparatrice (CSJR). She has held the position of deputy commissioner for Quebec within Correctional Service Canada. She has also served as associate deputy minister of the Direction générale des services correctionnels du Québec.

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