Victims' services, victims' rights and victim advocacy: that's the Canadian government's current focus when it comes to justice issues.
Supporting victims in dealing with their trauma or long-term healing is our collective social responsibility. But just because the cause is noble does not mean that the plans for achieving the goal are not misguided or insufficient.
Our current federal government's approach to dealing with crime and helping victims has been simple and simply wrong: keep people in jail longer, increase sentences, expand mandatory minimums and focus on punishment, not prevention or rehabilitation. And they've done it all in a corrosive, divisive manner that ignores evidence and Charter rights. More recently, the focus has been to expand programs and services that support victims through the criminal justice system.
In fact, 12 out of 13 news releases (at the time of writing this article) on the Department of Justice website relate to the government's purported efforts to fund victims' programs, to expand victim participation in the criminal justice system, and to increase sentences for offenders whose victims fall into certain classes.
On January 24, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced $1.2 million of funding to a victims program in Montreal. The previous day, he was in Winnipeg to announce an additional $5-million funding over five years for Child Advocacy Centres. Over the past six years, in fact, the government has allocated more than $90 million for victims' programming and other related efforts, many of these through partnerships with the provinces.
Yet not one of the announcements by the Department of Justice focuses on restorative justice programs, which provide an invaluable opportunity for victims to face offenders, to be heard, to get answers, to feel empowered and healed, and to move on with their lives.
It appears that our government can easily support and fund efforts aimed at "improving" our justice system- when those efforts are compatible with the purely punitive Conservative ideology. Restorative justice programs do not fit into this category.
In contrast to our criminal justice system, restorative justice programs are collaborative and focus on long-term healing and solutions. While they require accountability by the offender, they do not demonize him or her. They find solutions that heal the victim, but can also empower the offender to overcome some of their challenges. As such, restorative justice programs are better at reducing recidivism, healing the victims, the offenders, and the immediate community alike.
This collaborative process does not mean that offenders and their actions are treated lightly. In fact, restorative justice efforts are often more demanding and difficult for offenders than a traditional trial.
In restorative justice, the offender is required to listen to and to look at his victims. He must hear how his actions have affected them. He must answer their questions and recount his actions. And he is also part of the process of finding the appropriate remedy.
Furthermore, others affected by the offence (in addition to the direct victim) may participate and can offer creative and vital support to both the offender and the victim.
These other participants may assist a young offender who needs help at school and mental health care, or who needs to be protected from the negative influences in her life. They can come to the aid of the offender before things escalate.
As such, restorative justice programs are better at reducing recidivism and at healing the victims, the offenders, and the immediate community alike.
Yet our Conservative government overlooks these initiatives -- they are not sufficiently punitive.
But restorative justice expands the solutions to crime, its underlying causes, and how to help victims in a way that our criminal justice system cannot.
Our criminal justice system is individualistic and punishment-oriented at its core, and cannot provide any of these advantages. Our current system focuses on only one person, the alleged offender, and is aimed at determining that person's legal guilt. It is not concerned with the healing of the offender or the victim.
Healing, be it for the victim through victim-assistance programs, or for offenders, in jail, is currently only a failed afterthought. Victims are never fully heard and do not get their questions answered. Rehabilitation and healing are nearly impossible to get in prison, not just because of the incredibly limited resources available, but because the coercive, regimented, controlling environment of prisons is not conducive to rehabilitation.
The Conservatives' announcements will not change any of that.
Of course, restorative justice is not without its own shortcomings which must be addressed. But no system is perfect -- and in my opinion restorative justice is the best, the most humane solution before us.
Our current government has all the evidence that it needs in its hands. A Department of Justice site search on "restorative justice" leads one to consultation papers, reports and recommendations on why we need to expand and support our use of this process.
It is possible for us to design a system where we can help victims, help offenders, and reduce recidivism all at once. We just need to have a government that is bold and courageous enough to move in that direction.
If our Minister of Justice won't take that step, perhaps the Minister's provincial counterparts, the Attorneys General, would be brave enough to pick up the banner.