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Restorative justice programs emphasizing accountability are taking root

RJ keeps youth offenders out of the legal system in the Westshore

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The BC government is providing $3 million in funding to large restorative justice umbrella organizations across the province, including Restorative Justice Victoria (RJV), a community-based non-profit that provides restorative justice services in the CRD, which will get $550K over the next three years

Restorative justice is also implemented effectively through the West Shore RCMP Community Justice Forum. 

Restorative justice (RJ) emerged in the 1970s as a means to address the inequalities and inefficacies of the western legal system. At the centre of the concept, is the understanding that crimes and harms are violations of people and relationships and therefore, accountability on the part of the offender is required before true justice is actually achieved. In recent decades, RJ has gained significant traction across the province and Canada. While the criminal justice system deals with offenders, restorative justice addresses the needs of victims and the community, holding offenders accountable for the harm they cause.

Restorative justice programs in BC facilitate direct or indirect communication between victims and offenders in a collaborative way that can mend the harm that was done and address the causes of the offence.  

Some of the outcomes of restorative processes include financial compensation for loss or damage, a meaningful apology, or community service work. The process can also be applied to civil or private cases where someone is suing somebody for something such as personal injury, contract disputes, libel, or slander. These alternative measures allow perpetrators to accept responsibility for their actions, participate in mutual healing, receive treatment, or provide financial restitution. Such restorative processes often involve third-party mediation, peace circles, group conferencing, or circle sentencing.

Peace circles have been a part of Indigenous knowledge and ways of being for millennia. In a non-Indigenous context, peace circles are led by a trained facilitator and can be implemented in workplaces, justice systems, schools, communities, and families as a way to resolve conflict, inform sentencing, and foster accountability.

The RCMP West Shore Community Justice Forum coordinated by Randi Johal does not implement the practice of peace circles but does involve a mediated opportunity for accountability and reparation. According to its website, the “program is facilitated by volunteers with the West Shore RCMP. The primary mandate of the West Shore Restorative Justice Program is to facilitate Community Justice Forums where the accused take ownership of their actions and agree to reparations thereby diverting offenders away from criminal courts.” 

Instead of bringing charges against youth who would otherwise enter the legal system with a summary or minor offence, cases can be diverted to the RCMP’s RJ program. In 2023, the police diverted 24 adults and youth from courts, including two Langford teens caught spray-painting around Starlight Stadium that same year. Mischief or vandalism causing less than $5K in damages is considered a summary offence, though restorative justice can be applied to far more serious offences that include sexual assault. 

​​A summary conviction or petty crime is the least serious criminal offence under Canada's Criminal Code, an example of which is disturbing the peace or petty theft. Whereas the retributive, adversarial and punitive legal system offers youth offenders very little opportunity to provide input into the court processes, restorative justice programs offer the potential reintegration of youth and adults involved in the criminal justice system.

Evelyn Zellerer, director of Peace of the Circle—one of the organizations that received provincial funding—says, “restorative justice is a philosophy, an ethos, a paradigm shift in how we understand and respond to crime,” adding, “crime is not simply lawbreaking, it causes harm. Restorative justice is about addressing harm, collaboratively creating meaningful accountability, and healing. Restorative justice, when done well, offers better processes and outcomes than the legal system.”

In a restorative process, the victim and offender and their supporters have the opportunity to talk about what happened and why and the impacts of harm done. The parties involved, including the victim, are invited to determine resolution and agreements. 

Community or youth justice forums focus on young offenders. In the case of the Starlight Stadium spray-painting, the youths were required, as an outcome of the West Shore RCMP’s restorative justice forum, to write apology letters, pay a fine, and do community service in the form of park cleanup. 

A similar forum was implemented for two 14-year-olds who, in August 2023, were caught slashing tires at the Westshore Town Centre in Langford. In that case, the teens were required to write letters of apology to the car owners and paid combined fines of $1,050 to replace the damaged tires. 

One of the aims of restorative justice programs for youth offenders is that they gain insight into their behaviour and its impact on others. “The youth were all very remorseful and sincere in giving their apologies to the victims,” said Johal. 

West Shore RCMP Community Services Section invites those interested in volunteering with the program to contact 250-391-3367.