By LeRae Haynes –
Giving people a chance to turn their lives around and connecting them to their communities is at the heart of a growing, successful program in Williams Lake. For nearly 20 years Restorative Justice has taken cases off the court dockets, bringing offenders and victims face to face to discuss impact and consequences, with life-changing, meaningful results.
The Williams Lake Restorative Justice program is known throughout the province for its success.
“Restorative Justice is a lot more efficient than the standard court process,” explained volunteers Sandra Hawkins and Jim World. “We did over 60 cases last year and have done more than 30 this year so far. We’re getting requested more often all the time and new members are really needed.”
An alternative to the court system, Restorative Justice brings victims and perpetrators together to discover realistic consequences and teaching a peaceful, non-confrontational way to solve problems. The group in Williams Lake is run effectively by Dave Dickson from Community Policing, with Administrative Crown Rod Hawkins as advisor, and is one of the largest in the province.
World and Hawkins explained that Restorative Justice got its start in Williams Lake in1997 when RCMP officer Geordie Findlay went to get some training and get some information about Restorative Justice. “He came back pretty excited, wanting to get a local group started,” said Hawkins.
“There were 10 people at the first meeting in Williams Lake, and a year later I joined. One thing that appealed to me was that my husband Rod was Crown at the time and he agreed there must be a better way to deal with people who broke the law.
“I got excited about it. At the time there wasn’t official training available in BC; we were trained by the local Restorative Justice group that had started here the year before.”
She said they started with shoplifting and vandalism cases, but are taking on much more complex and challenges cases now, such as prolific offenders, assault cases, and domestic cases.
“As time went on we had a fair amount of success,” said World. “We put a Memorandum of Understanding together with Crown, and they started to take a look at Restorative Justice’s success, started approaching us with more complex cases, and the program continued to succeed.”
World explained there is a great range of age and ethnic diversity and both women and men in the group. “People bring a lot of different skills and experience to the group,” he said. “There are some with 15 and 20 years into it.
“We now have 30–40 members and five people who offer our training twice a year. We’re really hoping to attract new local volunteers and are offering training this fall.
Becoming a Restorative Justice volunteer is a positive experience for people of all walks of life; it opens up a whole new world of understanding people, as well as the knowledge that they’re doing something for the betterment of the community.”
The services Restorative Justice offers have changed. “Dave Dickson started getting phone calls about communities in conflict, inter-agency conflict, to do mediation,” said world, “and the group also started doing community sentencing forums.”
He explained that when someone pleads guilty and the judge decides sentencing, he doesn’t know anything about the person. “Thanks to the new forum, a group meets with the offender, some family and friends, and someone from the justice system, and then makes recommendations to the judge,” he noted.
“We have a conversation before the forum; we don’t just ask what you did, we ask what you need.”
He added that the forum may include Mental Health, Horton Ventures, and health services; there is a lot of advocacy.
“Once all that’s done and the group has decided the recommendations, they are given to the judge. One pertains to the offence and the second is taking care of the needs of the offender,” he stated.
“It’s very similar to the Restorative Justice forum process. There’s a pre-meeting with both the victim and the offender to see if they’re willing to work with Restorative Justice. We find out who else should be invited to the circle.”
Also new, according to Hawkins, is that Restorative Justice didn’t used to take cases unless they were going to court. “Now we’re getting cases of under-aged kids who can benefit from our process: not to punish them but to teach them.
“In the past few months Jim has started attending court sessions, and if a case seems perfect for Restorative Justice, he can send them right across to Dave Dickson to fill out the forms for a circle,” she explained.
Restorative Justice has also recently partnered with Punky Lake Wilderness Camp, providing circle training to people from communities in the Chilcotin, Sandra added, stating they’re hoping to get elders involved.
With Restorative Justice, what usually happens is that the RCMP or Crown recommends a circle, according to Hawkins.
“Once it gets going, so much understanding takes place between participants that victims don’t need anything harsh,” she said.“Sometimes it’s as simple as an apology. When someone has to go face to face with someone they’ve offended and see how it impacted them, sometimes the toughest-looking character will break into tears.
“Sometimes the result of the circle, or consequences, which we call sanctions, is community projects. You’ve taken something away from the community and now you need to give something back to restore the balance. Another sanction is to work with elders in the community.
“It’s a pretty rigorous process, starting with sitting across the circle from the person you’ve offended,” she added. “A reason is not an excuse, but an explanation can make all the difference in the world.”
For more information about Restorative Justice, including signing up for training this fall, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
LeRae Haynes is a freelance writer, song writer, community co-ordinator for Success by 6, member of Perfect Match dance band, and instigator of lots of music with kids