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Trudeau Needs The Courage To Reform Our Criminal Justice System

11/24/2015 12:19 EST | Updated 11/24/2016 05:12 EST
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Black woman in handcuffs

There is widespread expectation among progressive lawyers, criminologists and community and mental health workers that Justin Trudeau's Liberal government will step in and reverse some of Stephen Harper's draconian criminal laws. This expectation exists, despite the fact that the Liberal election platform was silent on most of the purely ideological and punitive laws enacted by the Conservatives.

Perhaps these expectations should be downgraded to wishes. But should the Liberal government move quickly to reverse those regressive laws, there will surely be some justified jubilance.

It would be unfortunate, however, to celebrate and then be satisfied with progress that only returns us to where we were 10 years ago. We can, we must, do better than simply turn back the clock.

Our criminal justice system begs for major reformation. As a former crown attorney and an Indigenous person with deep roots and connections to advocacy for our Aboriginal Peoples, our Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, has the expertise, experience, knowledge and credibility to champion those changes.

A short list of what we need to do to improve the criminal justice system? End solitary confinement for all young persons; end or dramatically reduce its use for adults in the prison system; keep the mentally ill, who form about 30 per cent of our inmatepopulation, out of jails; invest in early intervention, treatment and support for those with serious mental health issues and those at risk of criminal behaviour; and curb, altogether, the use of prisons, which are proven to be ineffective, harmful andcostly.

But more than anything else, it is my hope that Minister Wilson-Raybould will propose and implement real alternatives, rather than mere incremental changes, to our criminal justice system. The current system has tremendous shortcomings. It is woefully ineffective in preventing recidivism, helping offenders and healing victims. It exacerbates the underlying conditions that lead to the offender's acts, and leaves them with fewer future options. It allows the rest of us to abdicate our responsibility toward our neighbours. And it abandons victims, leaving them to heal alone, at times powerless, and without any meaningful answers.

There is a better way to help victims heal and to hold offenders accountable for their acts while empowering them to improve their lives. That alternative is restorative justice.

Restorative justice is a process that brings together (in appropriate cases) the offender, the victim and their supporters with highly trained and professional facilitators for one or often more meetings, usually conducted in a circle. During these encounters, the victims tell their story, describe how the offence impacted them and seek answers from the offender. In turn, the offender listens, and relates his or her own story. The focus is on "why" rather than "who," and on healing rather than punishment. The group often works together to find a resolution.

Restorative justice is not revolutionary. It has its roots in many Indigenous communities. It has been tried, in one form or another, in other jurisdictions, from England to New Zealand (where restorative justice has replaced the adversarial system for youth since 1989), and on a smaller, more timid scale across various parts of Canada.

There is plenty of proof, including in the Department of Justice and Canada's Public Safety Department's own records, that restorative justice works. It helps victims recover more quickly from post-traumatic stress disorder. It sometimes results in collaboration between the offender, the victim and the connected community to assist both the offender and the victim move forward. And it seems to reduce recidivism. This is all in stark contrast to the consequences of our current criminal justice system.

Restorative justice will not be for everyone or every offence. But it will be most effective if it generally replaces the fact-finding process, the trial, as opposed to only being used as a compliment to sentencing.

Restorative justice is the best answer to many of the failings of our criminal justice system.

Recently, former Ontario Attorney General, Michael Bryant, wrote of his regret that during his tenure as attorney general, he lacked the courage to improve our criminal justice system and end the continued detention of innocent people awaiting trial. I believe that Minister Wilson-Raybould has the strength and fortitude to tackle the problems in our criminal justice system. Let's hope that she also has the courage, the vision and the resolution to chart a new course, one that will set both offenders and victims on a more meaningful path to recovery.

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