(This article has been translated into French.)

Restorative justice is a philosophy and an associated set of practices. A departure from both punishment and rehabilitation, restorative justice is a new way of looking at crime in the Western world. It has been informed by many Indigenous cultures that have traditionally approached harm in relational ways based on community ownership and healing. Restorative justice also has roots in diverse faith traditions and practices related to community justice, victimology and penal abolition.

And yet, despite ample evidence that demonstrates the benefits of restorative justice, only about a third of non-spousal incidents of victimization are ever reported in Canada, and those that are reported are put through the formal court process. More needs to be done to expand awareness around restorative justice, among both the general public and people working within the criminal justice system.

In the 10 years I spent working with a restorative justice program serving North and West Vancouver, I noticed a significant increase in support from both the police and the community. Community members and police officers became more open to this different way of thinking about justice, after learning of the healing that was taking place through restorative justice programs between victims and those who had harmed them.

I recall one case involving an assault by one young person against another. It had a physical impact, and an emotional one on both families. When the families came together to talk about the incident, it was revealed that bullying behaviour had been going on between the youths since elementary school. This buildup of harm is what ultimately led to a serious physical assault. I sat in that circle wondering if things would have escalated to this degree had the school or the parents introduced restorative justice practices to these young people earlier in their lives. It is clear from much of the research from around the world that restorative justice practices in schools enhance feelings of safety and reduce harmful behaviours like bullying.

The victim-offender reconciliation program offered by the Community Justice Initiatives Association in BC, founded in 1982, is one of the pioneers in the area of restorative justice. CJI remains a leader in the province and beyond by offering quality training in restorative justice, a schools-based program and the Restorative Opportunities Program. The program operates across Canada and provides access to victim-offender dialogues to those impacted by serious and violent crime. It has had positive results, despite an extensive waiting list and few resources. Past participants such as Carys Cragg, whose father was murdered, and Suman and Manjit Virk, the parents of the slain teen Reena Virk, have written books, created films and courageously shared their stories of healing justice through this program.

Currently, the promotion and practice of restorative justice have largely been done piecemeal through individual community-based, non-profit/NGO organizations and some criminal justice professionals.

And yet, despite the abundance of law, research and practice that demonstrates how restorative justice could provide a meaningful justice response for victims, offenders and communities, these processes remain at the margins of Canada’s justice system. Currently, the promotion and practice of restorative justice have largely been done piecemeal through individual community-based, non-profit/NGO organizations and some criminal justice professionals. While such advocacy can produce meaningful outcomes for some cases, if restorative justice does not have adequate resources, infrastructure or practice standards, it will remain inconsistent across the country.

What more is required for restorative justice to become a legitimate, well-utilized option?

Advocates, practitioners and researchers are working hard to answer this question. Many of us believe part of the answer lies in providing education both to criminal justice actors and to the public so they can realize the benefits of restorative justice. Information shared should take the form of both storytelling from past participants and the sharing of highlights of Canadian research with respect to satisfaction and recidivism.

From my own research on educating criminology students in university, it is clear that learning about restorative justice impacts the way students think and, ultimately, act both in their own lives and on the job. I recall one student who used restorative justice practices to rebuild a difficult relationship with a parent. Another became a police officer and began using what he called “roadside restorative justice” on the job. In many situations of harm or conflict, the officer would use what he had learned about restorative justice to invite both parties to share right there and then: What happened? Who was impacted and how? Who is taking responsibility for what? What needs to happen to start to heal this relationship or repair the harm?

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I have sat in court and watched judges be moved after learning about the outcomes of restorative justice processes that those in court had participated in.

Experiencing the success of such collaborative and compassionate approaches to problem solving has led many to advocate for restorative justice within the criminal justice system. I have sat in court and watched judges be moved after learning about the outcomes of restorative justice processes that those in court had participated in. One judge said, “You and your restorative justice program brought about the healing outcomes that I never could.” I will never forget how affirmed both the parties and I felt about those words.

Increased confidence in restorative justice within the larger criminal justice system is also essential. At present, many criminal justice actors are hesitant to refer cases to restorative justice, not only because of a lack of awareness but also because they worry about the quality of the practices. They have good reason for concern, as many of these programs are severely underfunded and require more resources to access good training, hire qualified staff and support the ongoing development of ethical and principled practice.

In 2016, a group of community-based restorative justice practitioners collaborated in BC to develop recommended principles and standards for restorative justice providers in criminal matters. In keeping with the spirit of restorative justice, adopting these practice standards is voluntary. Whether this project will have impact on referrals and practice is currently being evaluated.

Finally, more robust and stable funding for restorative justice programs is required from the province and federal governments, which directly benefit from cost savings associated with restorative justice. Savings in policing, court and corrections costs resulting from the increased use of restorative justice need to be redirected back into these worthwhile programs. Today most restorative justice programs receive only a maximum of $2,500 from the BC government. Some programs have accessed funds from municipal governments, and others must reapply for yearly grants through various sources. This situation is neither sustainable nor aligned with provincial policy and federal legislation that direct criminal justice actors to provide restorative justice options for victims, offenders and the community.

Canada has a wealth of diverse restorative justice programs operated by dedicated people within Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Despite numerous challenges, many of us in the restorative justice community are hopeful about the future of expanding restorative justice throughout the country. Moving restorative justice from the margins to the mainstream of the criminal justice system depends on gatekeepers like the police, courts and judges feeling confident and knowledgeable enough to make referrals. Equally important is an educated public asking for and expecting restorative justice alternatives if they are impacted by crime.

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

Photo: Shutterstock/By Image Point Fr

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Alana Abramson
Alana Abramson is a criminology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She has nearly 20 years’ experience with restorative justice as a researcher, trainer and practitioner in community, prison and school settings. She was presented the BC Restorative Justice Award in 2017.

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