A program that brings victims of crime face to face with contrite young offenders has begun in central Alberta.
The Red Deer Rural Restorative Justice program will soon bring victims and wrongdoers who want to make amends together in forums overseen by trained case facilitators.
More than just apologies come out of these sometimes emotional meetings. Offenders must sign a written contract — agreed to by their victims — on how they can make amends.
“The concept of restorative justice is not a new concept,” said program co-ordinator Debbie Leitch. “It’s certainly been well established in other communities in Alberta and across the world.
“It has been having really positive effects in reducing repeat crimes,” she said on Monday.
Eighty-five per cent of victims who have participated in restorative justice programs leave satisfied and offenders involved are 14 per cent less likely to get into trouble again.
The rural Red Deer program began as a recommendation from Red Deer County’s police advisory council, which works closely with Blackfalds RCMP detachment.
“They were trying to look at ways to build safer and stronger and healthier communities,” said Leitch. “And one of the strategies they came up with was implementing a restorative justice program.
“It’s really about helping the young offender, or whoever the offender is, to acknowledge they did the harm and also acknowledge the accountability to repair the harm.
“We’re starting with young offenders in the school system to start with, and we will expand beyond that once we do develop a little bit and become more established,” she said. RCMP school resource officers have already made the first referrals.
It will be up to Blackfalds RCMP to refer those they think will benefit from the program. More serious crimes will be dealt with through the regular justice system. Restorative justice also does not deal with traffic offences.
The goal is to offer something the justice system often can’t, and that is to bring victims and offenders together so those who have hurt others, whether physically, emotionally or psychologically, understand what they have done.
Facilitators lead the meetings, which include victims, offenders and their supporters and a neutral observer.
For victims, the meetings provide a chance to express how the offence hurt them, an opportunity often not available in the regular court system.
“With our current justice system the person who has been harmed or the victim never gets a chance to talk to that person and say, ‘Look, this is what you did to me. This is the impact it’s had on me and now I’m afraid to be home alone at night or I had to go buy a dog or put locks on my gates.’”
As well, many offenders have not thought about the effects of their actions until confronted with their victims.
“This isn’t for everybody. Obviously, restorative justice really is about those offences where the individual accepts accountability and admits they did the harm and is prepared to make it right.
“It is completely voluntary for the victim and the offender and we have great evidence that shows success.”
Making amends can mean an honest apology for bullying or minor physical or verbal confrontations or more hands-on signs of contrition, such as repairing property damage or cleaning up graffiti.