The following blog post was written by Graydon Leigh, a political science major at the University of Victoria. Graydon grew up in Port Coquitlam, BC and aspires to be a journalist. He is an avid hockey fan and is honoured to write about volunteerism in the Victoria community.
Before my interview with Gillian Lindquist, Program Coordinator for the Victoria Restorative Justice Society (VRJS), I knew little about the methodology behind restorative justice. Gillian told me that “the society provides meaningful and personal responses to crime and harmful behaviour”, but I think this short statement isn’t enough to explain the society’s work. It doesn’t begin to describe restorative justice’s social impact.
Justice begins in the community
Words often fail what they describe, and restorative justice is a prime example. The reason for this stems from the sense of closure and reconciliation provided to those who have used VRJS’s services. The process supports those affected by crime. Despite a tight budget and a heavy reliance on volunteerism, the organization succeeds in its goal. This goal – rebuilding the sense of community damaged by illegal activity – begins with the victim. Provided with the opportunity to employ VRJS’s restitution formula, these courageous individuals may choose to handle their difficult situation using the innovative program.
After consent from the victim, offender, family members, witnesses and anyone else affected by the offense is approved, participants engage in one of three tried and tested approaches, facilitated by volunteers:
- Community Justice Conferences
- Peacemaking Circles, or
- Victim-Offender Mediation
VRJS’s mandate centres around community-based, participatory justice. Their philosophy is that regular members of the community can effectively resolve the conflicts that occur within their neighbourhoods instead of relying solely on the courts to resolve these issues.
These three methods operate around the sentiment that justice begins in the community. This principle helps differentiate the restorative justice movement from traditional applications of criminal justice. It is a new and constantly evolving formula.
The society deals with incidents from virtually every corner of the criminal spectrum. Last year VRJS dealt with many upper-tier crimes including twelve assaults, four B & Es, two arsons, and three DUIs. VRJS also dealt with lower-tier cases, as four cases of grade school bullying were handled by the society.
The difference between restorative and criminal justice
Case type is not the only disparity between restorative and criminal justice. Instead of punishing offenders, restorative justice favours restitution. The idea that crime is a violation of people and relationships – not exclusively the law and state – is central to the organization.
This helps distinguish restorative from criminal justice: the former acts to better the offender as a person, while the latter forces obedience. And, while the criminal justice system tends to marginalize victims, restorative justice brings them to the centre and empowers them to have a voice.
Restorative justice’s methodology has been proven to reduce repeat offending. The obligation offenders feel towards their victim following the restitution process is morally binding. This helps re-assimilate those who have committed a criminal offence into society. Restitution agreements achieved a 97% compliance rate among participating offenders in 2011. This percentage is unachievable without the positive contributions made by volunteer caseworkers.
Call for volunteers
If you have experience working as a mediator or counsellor VRJS could use your help. The psychological aspect of the process makes this skillset needed. Victims may develop attachments to the trauma inducer. This event, called a trauma bond, is an intense need for the victim to achieve reconciliation. Doing so is proven to drastically improve the chances of retaining a healthy lifestyle. This occurrence fuels a driving force in caseworkers: the positive sense of community damaged by crime must be revived. Thus, the logic behind restitution agreements. These can involve victims working closely with offenders in service projects. The victim always has a large say in contract negotiations, and the empathy felt by offenders validates their cooperation. Caseworkers stimulate and nurture the sense of resonance developed in offenders toward their victims.
If you want to get involved with the society and contribute to VRJS, you are invited to go to www.vrjs.org and submit an application. A description of caseworker positions and what they entail can be found on their website.