Nov. 15 – 22, 2020 is Restorative Justice Week in Canada and around the world. The Herald spoke to Christopher Stokes, Justice Worker for the Nicola Valley Restorative Justice Program, to learn more about the program and how it functions in Merritt via the Nicola Valley Community Justice Services Society, which has been in operation since 1996.
“Restorative justice is an approach to justice that offers a chance for everyone involved to share their story,” said Stokes.
“It brings the victims of crime, their offenders, their support people and community members together to talk about what happened and explain how the crime has affected them. It provides the chance to address the harm that has been done, and to find ways that it can be repaired.”
The Nicola Valley Restorative Justice Program receives referrals from the Merritt RCMP detachment on cases that they believe will be good candidates for restorative justice, as opposed to criminal court. Stokes coordinates with the RCMP officers and determines whether a restorative justice program can be implemented.
“We take those files and mediate between the victim and the offender,” said Stokes.
“We do pre-interviews to find out the story of what happened, why it happened, what needs do people have, what things people want the other party to understand, and to begin to talk about ways that the situation can be resolved.”
Stokes will then put together a restorative justice circle, also known as a community justice forum. A “safe and controlled” environment where offenders and their victims, as well as their supporters and families, are brought together under the guidance of a trained facilitator. They will discuss the offence, how they were each affected and develop a plan to correct the crime that occurred.
“It builds understanding and equality, learning that in a circle we’re all together, we’re all one,” said Stokes.
“And it gives a chance both for the victim to understand where the offender is coming from, why they committed the crime, what happened and get the whole gist of the story. And likewise for the offender, it gives them the chance to see how they affected the victim. What happened in the victim’s life in that time.”
Stokes notes that restorative justice will often move ahead more quickly than the criminal justice program, and is therefore also more cost effective than the courts. There are also higher rates of success in restorative justice, and the program has shown to provide a safer community by reducing repeat offences.
“It has higher rates of compliance, meaning the offender is more likely to stick with the restorative justice plan… and it has a quicker resolution than the court process,” said Stokes.
“I’m able to facilitate a restorative justice circle sometimes within a month of getting the referral, whereas sometimes in the court process they don’t even have their first hearing for three or four months.”
The services of the restorative justice program, including family and criminal law and dispute resolution, are available to everyone, with a strong focus on those living in poverty and indigenous persons. Many of the clients the program has assisted are youth.
In addition to restorative justice, Indigenous clients may be eligible for alternative measures, probation monitoring and community work service supervision. In order to indigenize the process and create a more community-based connection, elders are also brought into the program.
“Restorative justice is not a slap on the wrist, it’s not an easy getaway, it can be a really big, emotional process,” explained Stokes.
“And it really hands its benefits off to the victim, (and) to the people who offend, (moreso) than the regular criminal justice program system, so it can really incorporate a more meaningful approach to justice. There have been really positive results with the clients I’ve had. In the victims it’s inspired empowerment, it allows them to get that chance to be heard in the whole process, whereas in the regular criminal court process, the victim’s voice isn’t generally considered in the whole sentencing.”
Recently, the Society has expanded by opening a new Indigenous Justice Centre in downtown Merritt. The Centre aims to provide enhanced legal services to Indigenous people who have not been well served by the traditional justice system. This can include individuals facing jail time, or families who potentially face the removal of their children.
Although not a conventional form of justice, Stokes believes that in many cases, the program is more effective and provides results more encompassing of all those affected.
“Restorative justice provides an opportunity for healing, reparation and reintegration,” said Stokes.
“It can help an offender come back into the community and build up their supports to make sure this behaviour doesn’t happen again. And for the victim, it helps their healing to be able to overcome what happened and repair the hurt that they feel, and not have that grudge against the offender, in a sense.”
Morgan Hampton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Merritt Herald