Restorative justice program – an alternative for young offenders

Program will also afford the offenders’ victims the opportunity to face them

A program being developed in Kitimat could see young offenders working in the community as an alternative form of punishment that won’t leave them with a criminal record.

Kitimat RCMP Victim Services Unit’s Leisl Kaberry said once launched the restorative justice program will also afford the offenders’ victims the opportunity to face them in a meeting set up through the program, managed by a trained facilitator.

“We are hoping that through this process the group can come up with a more constructive outcome, rather than take the offenders through the court system,” said Kaberry.

“We are looking at ensuring there are consequences for their actions that are more positive, that ultimately lead to good.”

The program will involve a co-ordinator setting up a restorative justice conference, which will be attended by the victim and the offender, along with people from their support networks, the Victim Services Unit (VSU) and the RCMP, and the facilitator, who will take the participants through the restorative justice process.

“The conference will not only give the victim an opportunity to let the offender know how the crime affected them, but will also give the offender the opportunity to apologize and explain why they committed the crime,” said Kaberry.

“For the victims it’s a great outcome – they are being heard. For the offender, hearing the victims speak can help them understand what it was like to experience the crime.”

She said the program is aimed specifically, but not exclusively, at young offenders in an attempt to prevent recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) by avoiding taking them through the criminal justice system.

She said testifying in court often doesn’t give victims closure, and that victim impact statements, prepared ahead of sentencing, sometimes don’t get read out in court.

“Sometimes offenders will also get off with just a warning. The restorative justice conferences give us another option,” said Kaberry.

The program has certain limitations, though, and will not automatically be offered to offenders, especially if they are accused of serious crimes, like assault and sexual assault.

Offenders eligible for the program can only have committed petty crimes, like theft, and must admit their guilt and agree that there will be some form of punishment meted out at the conclusion of the conference.

The victim and the offender both have to agree to participate in the conferences, but if the offender chooses not to take the offer, they will face their charges in court.

Once the offender has accepted the offer to participate in the program, they can no longer be charged with the crime.

“Once we’ve gotten to that point we can’t turn back. Once we’re committed to the conference, we are committed,” said Kaberry.

Offenders will only be considered for participation in a conference after consultation between the RCMP and the Victim Services Unit on a case-by-case basis.

She added that should the offenders be arrested again after participating in a conference and end up in the program again, they will face a harsher sentence, which could include serving significantly more time working in the community.

Once both parties agree to participate, the co-ordinator will arrange a conference, inform the facilitator and find a venue. Kaberry said they will most likely arrange the conferences in the evening, at neutral venues like school classrooms.

Kaberry said while the program already has a designated facilitator, she appealed to anyone in the community who is interested to apply to become one.

“We would like to have a couple of facilitators, especially people who have worked in social services in Kitimat,” said Kaberry.

“We will send people for restorative justice training in Terrace.”

Anyone who applies to become a facilitator will be vetted by both the RCMP and the VSU before they are appointed.

During the conferences, the facilitators will discuss potential consequences the offender can face for their crime, which if the victim agrees, will become their

sentence.

The victim can also make suggestions as to what punishment the offender should receive.

“This is where the community comes in. We need them to come forward and suggest ways the offenders can help the community,” said Kaberry.

“The offenders will have to be supervised and there can’t be any kind of remuneration for the work they do.”

The projects can include anything from collecting trash along the road and cleaning graffiti, to helping the elderly by cutting their grass or clearing snow from their walks.

“The offenders mustn’t think this will be a walk in the park, especially if they aren’t used to hard work,” said Kaberry.

“The idea is to keep them busy and active, and away from crime.”

She said the time spent helping the community will have a positive effect on the offenders, who she says often don’t feel they are part of the community.

“It may take several conferences before they ‘get it’, but this is better than nothing, certainly better than the alternative which is to bring them to court,” said Kaberry. “We want to catch them after their first offence and prevent them getting a criminal record for having done something stupid.”

The program will initially launch in Kitimat and be extended to Kitamaat Village once it is properly established.

Kaberry appealed to anyone who would like to volunteer to become a co-ordinator or a facilitator, or who would like to suggest an activity that the offender can participate in, to contact her at 250- 639-2122.

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