A recent news story about an assault case that was diverted to restorative justice without the victim’s knowledge has raised some questions, and eyebrows. For me, it created a lot of concern that this will be the public understanding of what restorative justice means. While I obviously can’t comment on specifics of a case I know nothing about, I can comment on RJ processes used here at Mediation Services. We operate a diversion program, and have for over 20 years now, long before the auspices of the Restorative Justice Act. Many of the principles outlined in the Act are the same ones which guide our work.
The first among these is the involvement of the victim. In every case we receive, our first step is to reach out to the victim, to let them know about the referral, and to invite their involvement on whatever level they choose. Participation is voluntary, and victims can choose what that looks like for them. It can range from a conversation with a caseworker, to explore options and to talk about the impact of the offense, to providing information to be shared with the accused, through to participating in a meeting with the accused, if that’s something that is going to meet the victim’s needs. They can also choose not to be involved at all, or to request that the matter be returned to court. Whether it proceeds through court is always going to be at the discretion of the Crown Attorney, as is the case with every file. We do everything we can to ensure that victims have as much information as possible, so they can make the decision that is right for them.
If the victim is interested in a restorative option, our next step is to talk to the accused. In order to participate in our program, the accused has to take responsibility for the offense. If there is no responsibility, the file is simply sent back to court, because responsibility is another core value of restorative justice, and without it, we have nothing to work with. Put more simply, if someone can’t acknowledge doing the harm, then how can they work to put it right?
If the responsibility is there, even if it may need some support and coaching to develop further, then we talk with both parties about what type of restorative process will be the best fit for them. This may be a face to face mediation, or a community justice forum, or it may be an option that involves less direct contact. That choice is made, first and foremost by the victim, with support from their caseworker. Participation is voluntary for the accused as well, though they do have a bit more incentive, as they usually want to try to resolve their charges.
Whatever the process used, if an agreement is reached (and that is an if, no one is obligated to agree) it will generally have two main components. First, what needs to happen to repair the harm done, as much as it can be repaired? This will often involve elements such as apologies, payment of restitution for anything that was broken or damaged, completion of community service work as symbolic reparations for time spent by the victim, or other measures that are meaningful to the parties. Second, what measures need to be in place to make sure that the accused doesn’t do something like this again? This will often involve elements such as counselling or addictions treatment, anger management, or other such programming. Knowing that these steps are being taken will often also be helpful for the victim in beginning to restore a sense of safety. Only once the agreement is complete is the charge disposed of.
RJ has always faced accusations of being soft, or a “slap on the wrist.” As someone who has worked in the field for over 15 years, I can definitely state that for many accused, what they experience in an RJ process is a lot more difficult than what they would have gone through in court, and more to the point, it’s a lot more effective. RJ is, at its best, relational justice, justice which humanizes people to each other, helps accused to develop an understanding of the harm they have done, helps victims find answers and meaningful resolutions, and by fostering that learning and understanding, contributes to individual healing, as well as more peaceful communities.
Written by Megan Bowman, Restorative Action Centre Coordinator