In Canada, Solving Youth Crime Tribal Way

On one side are crime victims eager not so much for retribution as for closure.

On the other side are government officials looking to cut the costs of the justice system, including the cost of housing prisoners.

In the middle is the restorative justice movement. Restorative justice, which sees crimes as offenses against individuals and communities rather than against the state, emphasizes restoration of victims and reconciliation between victims and offenders, instead of prison sentences.

As Canadians prepare to observe Restorative Justice Week next week, a number of communities across the country are claiming some remarkable successes in handling juvenile crime, in particular, through alternatives to traditional court processes.

Take Sparwood, British Columbia, for instance, a coal-mining town of 5,000 residents policed by a six-member detachment of Mounties. The number of juvenile cases in the courts has dropped from 64 in 1994 to zero so far this year, according to Glen Purdy, a Sparwood lawyer who trains facilitators in a restorative justice method called "family group conferencing."

In January 1995, Sparwood started its conferencing program. Mr. Purdy says that year, 48 cases of juvenile offense were "conferenced," and none ended up in court. The downward trend continued in the following years, and this past year, Sparwood had only four cases of juvenile offense. "They were all done in conferencing," says Purdy. Since the institution of the program, only three or four cases have had to be referred to the courts.

Conferencing brings together offenders and victims, with their respective support teams (parents, spouses, close friends), the police officer on the case, and other interested parties, plus a facilitator. The offender gives his or her account of the incident. Then others have a turn to explain how the offender's behavior affected them. This phase of the conference, called "the shaming," is intended to make the offender aware of the gravity of his or her behavior. "We want to hit them emotionally," says Purdy. "The victim has the last word," he adds.

The next phase is a "reintegration," whereby the group works out a plan for restitution and an appropriate punishment. This may involve community service or work to be performed for the victim. Sometimes, Purdy notes, the victim gets involved as a mentor to the offender.

That's what Wilf Lynk did. "We had a young fellow who shoplifted a $100 shirt" from Mr. Lynk's shoe and clothing store, he says. "He was quickly spotted around town. He admitted that he took it.

"I had a chance to tell how it affected me.... Some stores have signs saying, 'Only three teenagers at one time in the store,'" because of concern about shoplifting. "But I made a point of saying I don't do that. It wasn't the loss of the goods so much as the disappointment that it happened in my store."

The sentence worked out was restitution for the item plus 10 weeks of working in Lynk's store. "For the first two weeks, he was just doing his time. I asked him, 'What do you want to learn [about the business]?' But he just did menial tasks." After a while, he came around, though, and started learning the business, and even worked on after the 10 weeks were up.

"From what I understand, it was a typical experience" of conferencing, Lynk adds. "It was a pretty heavy experience. Pretty emotional. The kid did his own sentencing. He was told that the normal sentence for something like this is 15 to 100 hours. He gave himself 75 hours."

Adele Lindley is another Sparwood resident who went through conferencing. Five years ago, when she was in high school, she was assaulted at a dance by one of a group of girls who had been harassing her for over a year.

Adele met with the girl who attacked her, and an accomplice, along with their parents, Adele's sister, and the young constable on the case all met for what Adele calls "the court thing." She appreciates the way everyone got some say in working out an agreement. The accomplice's parents, for instance, were able to stipulate that their daughter "had to go to school." Adele's older sister insisted that the 40 hours of community service initially proposed as a sentence was too light. "She got it bumped up to 80 hours."

Adele says her attacker "has apologized to me, and she'll say hello when she sees me around town." The accomplice "stays away from me - which is just fine with me."

In Canada, as in other countries with a justice system based on English common law, a key element is in place for alternative programs: discretion. A constable can legally decide not to have someone charged; a judge can refer a case to some kind of mediation.

But as a practical matter, successful restorative justice programs tend to rely on some outside community organization to provide the skilled conference facilitators or mediators to make the alternative processes possible.

In Edmonton, Alberta, police constable Aaron Nichols of the police service there, has been working to establish conferencing in his community as a way to deal with crime. "We see what we're doing as an evolution of our justice system.... The idea is to work ourselves out of a job." The Community Conferencing Association of Edmonton was launched in August 1997 and has done 14 conferences so far, including a murder case, "with great success." Constable Nichols has involved local social-advocacy organizations, including aboriginal groups. "Once people start hearing about this, we'll be flooded" with requests for help, he predicts - and he has to be sure he has enough facilitators.

Another key point in restorative justice is involvement of victims. "The challenge [in traditional legal processes] is in getting the victim's voice heard," says Chris, a probation officer in Ontario. Part of what makes conferencing and other methods satisfying for victims is that they allow a confrontation with the offender. "But the process stalls unless the victim can be enlisted."

The restorative-justice movement, for which conferencing is only one tool, is strong in Canada's western provinces, in part because its principles resonate so well with traditional Indian tribal justice methods.

But even advocates of restorative justice programs are guarded in their assessments of their successes. Rick Prashaw of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, in Ottawa, gives this verdict so far: "An amber light."

This restraint might make it easier to sell skeptical police officials on the merits of the new methods, though.

And at a time when governments are eager to save money wherever possible, restorative justice holds out the promise of being a low-cost alternative to incarceration. "Their motive is finances," an Ontario official says privately of his province's interest in alternative justice. "But they know it works, too."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.