A central Alberta program that brings crime victims and wrongdoers who want to make amends together plans to build on its success.
Red Deer Rural Restorative Justice Program began last spring and has since given 10 young offenders an opportunity to apologize for their crimes and commit themselves to becoming a better person and member of society.
Program co-ordinator Debbie Leitch said they are already looking to expand the local program and widen the age group to 25 years old for participants. The program for this area started with younger offenders aged 12 to 18.
Leitch and others who run programs in dozens of Alberta’s communities were pleased last week when the Alberta government announced $1 million would be invested in restorative justice initiatives. In March, about $720,000 in funding was provided to 25 non-profit restorative justice providers and organizations.
The province also oversees $350,000 in federal funding for Alberta’s nearly 60 youth justice committees, which offer community-based alternatives to court.
Leitch said the local program has applied for $40,000 through Alberta Community Restorative Justice Grants and is optimistic it will receive funding help.
“I think we’re on the cusp of restorative justice really taking an enhanced role in the criminal justice system. I think it’s really positive.”
Of the 10 offenders who participated, only one has reoffended so far. For the victims and others affected by the offenders’ actions — which included 22 families and nearly 70 people — all were satisfied with their experiences in the program.
A number of area municipalities, including Town of Blackfalds and Red Deer and Lacombe Counties, have offered support, along with rural crime watch and fraud prevention groups, schools and corporate sponsors.
“We have had great community engagement and I think they are really supporting this process as a viable option,” she said.
About half of the cases involved assault or threats to harm. Thirty per cent involved mischief-related offences and 10 per cent involved theft and 10 per cent arson.
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 as well as 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.
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. Those who make amends can avoid a criminal record.
Leitch said the goal of the program is also to dig deeper into the circumstances around the cases that came to them.
“A lot of what the program has done is to try to get these underlying causes of why these people doing these things. What’s leading to some of the actions we’re seeing?
“When I look at assault cases, a lot of that has started from retaliation, where in early years these kids were bullying or getting bullied.”
Those involved in the program also look into family dynamics, anger management, peer influences and what sort of support those
“When they come up with the actions that will repair the harm, often the actions are based on those underlying causes that were identified.
“I think it’s really powerful. It tries to get at how do we help these kids overcome those things that are driving them to make those bad decisions.”