The federal Department of Justice conducted a survey earlier this year and discovered 52 per cent of Canadians have little familiarity with what’s known as restorative justice, despite its use in our criminal justice system for more than 40 years.
So what is restorative justice exactly? And can it provide better justice for victims, offenders and society as a whole? The research says yes.
Restorative justice focuses more on the rehabilitation of the offender of a crime, and reconciliation with the victims, and less on punishment. It focuses on repairing harm, the potential for healing in victims, meaningful accountability of offenders and preventing further crime.
It is a voluntary process for both the victim and the offender. Typically, offenders are required to acknowledge or accept responsibility for their actions to access the program.
Restorative justice can take many forms and varies widely from community to community, but it can include mediation programs and restitution agreements, including community service, financial compensation and service to the victim.
Research shows restorative justice tends to be more efficient and cost-effective than the traditional justice system. And it reduces repeat offences. There are currently almost 500 such programs running in communities across the country, primarily for youth offenders.
We recently held a Senate open caucus forum on the issue and experts from across the country emphasized the need for Canada to further explore restorative justice.
“It’s much more than a different way of getting justice done, but a different way of understanding what doing justice actually requires,” Jennifer Llewellyn, a professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, told the forum.
Chantell Barker, justice development co-ordinator at the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents 34 First Nation communities in Manitoba, told the forum restorative justice is more in line with traditional Indigenous models of justice that have an emphasis on healing the root causes and the restoring of harmony, allowing offenders to learn from their mistakes and to make amends for their behaviour.
When Ryan Beardy spoke, the room sat in quiet attention.
Eighteen months ago, Beardy was released from prison on parole. Prior to that, he had spent the past two decades in and out of the prison system, spending several years behind bars. Now he’s a second-year university student studying political science and conflict resolution and sits on many non-profit boards. He is a student mentor and a father.
How did he turn his life around? He credits restorative justice.
“Restorative justice practices changed my life,” Beardy said. “I didn’t want to keep going back to prison and I didn’t want to create any more victims. I wanted to change.”
So he asked to participate in a therapeutic program, to learn from elders, to connect with his culture. He learned to reject past negative values and belief systems and to begin the journey of healing his mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
So what needs to happen now to make restorative justice approaches more effective across Canada?
We need a national framework for implementing restorative justice, in partnership with the provinces.
We need to support restorative justice programs beyond individual success stories to system-wide approaches, including, as Llewellyn stated, “legislative changes to support increased use and access” and adequate funding that involves government and community collaboration.
We also need to educate Canadians about restorative justice options.
Art Eggleton has recently retired from the Canadian Senate. Senator Raymonde Saint-Germain is deputy facilitator of the Independent Senators Group.