08/21/2015 12:27 EDT | Updated 08/21/2016 05:59 EDT

We Should Use Compassion to Get Tough on Crime

Shutterstock / pryzmat

In a moment of boredom, two teens in Lanark County, Ont., smash their way into a hardware store and help themselves to the goods.

Police nabbed the pair soon after. But instead of going before judge and jury, the teens faced their victims in a citizen-run "restorative justice" forum. It's an approach that's gaining popularity across Canada, showing there's more than one way to be tough on crime.

A 2014 study by the Fraser Institute found that Canada's crime rate fell 27 per cent over the past decade. However, the cost of our justice system more than doubled to $85 billion from $42.4 billion in 1998. A big chunk of that is court costs, which have increased by 21 per cent. Restorative justice can reduce costs and in many cases deliver more socially transformative results.

Correctional Services Canada, which runs a nation-wide Restorative Opportunities Program, describes restorative justice as "a non-adversarial, non-retributive approach to justice" that emphasizes healing victims, meaningful accountability for offenders, and including citizens in creating communities that are both safe and healthier.

Perpetrators (usually of minor crimes like theft) face their victims in an intimate setting under the supervision of trained mediators -- no expensive lawyers or judges. Guided by the mediator, both sides agree on how the perpetrator will make amends. The priority for restorative justice is not to mete out punishment, as in a court of law, but to "heal the harm that's been done," explains Christine Peringer, board chair of the Lanark County Community Justice Program.

There have been few Canadian studies to date on restorative justice, but the U.K. Restorative Justice Council found that the practice reduced recidivism by 14 per cent, saving the U.K. court system $16Cdn for every $2Cdn spent on restorative programs. And the U.K.'s Smith Institute says restorative justice processes have led to "substantially reduced repeat offending, reduced victims' post-traumatic stress symptoms, higher satisfaction rates for victims, reduced victims' desire for violent revenge, and reduced costs for the overall justice system." Pretty impressive.

The government of Nova Scotia claims an incredible success rate in its restorative justice programs -- 90 per cent of criminals fulfill the terms for atonement they agree to in a restorative justice forum. According to Peringer, the average success rate for court-ordered restitution settlements is considerably lower at 60 per cent.

When Peringer's organization surveyed crime victims who had resolved their cases through restorative justice, 99 per cent felt they got a more satisfactory result than had they gone to court. Most courts allow victim impact statements. However, as Peringer explains, in restorative justice they are no longer passive bystanders, but have a direct say in the outcome of the case.

For criminals, restorative justice in many cases means avoiding the life-changing legal and social stigma of a criminal conviction. But that doesn't mean restorative justice goes easy on them. "I've heard from many offenders that it's much harder to have to explain themselves to their victim in a restorative justice circle than to simply stand silently in front of a judge and get sentenced to community service," says Sarah Jackman, a board member of the Canadian Restorative Justice Consortium.

Peringer adds both police and crown attorneys tell her offenders going through her program rarely re-appear on their radars.

Back in Lanark, the teen thieves listened with mounting remorse as the store owners described the anxiety and terror of having their property invaded and the fear of not knowing if the intruders might return and hurt them. Without needing a judge to pronounce sentence, the teens offered a heartfelt apology and readily agreed to make amends by helping out at the store with painting and repairs.

The store owners walked away satisfied with the outcome. The teens received a fair punishment without the black mark of a criminal record. And Canadian taxpayers weren't stuck with a hefty lawyer's bill.

Sounds like a win for everyone to us.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


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