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restorative justice

By Loreth Beswetherick Vincent Stancato’s take on crime and punishment goes against old-school thinking in Canada. He believes in restorative justice and healing, as opposed to the retributive kind — especially when it comes to young offenders. But, if a community really wants to stop the cycle and prevent crime, starting in high schools — where all the problems are perceived to start — is not the route to go. "Research is pointing to the fact you need to start around the pre-school years," said Stancato. And the focus, he said, should centre around bullying. Stancato said helping young children understand basic human relationships and how their actions can impact others is a step toward breaking the crime cycle. "You need very meaningful involvement at a very young age... not tokenism. We are talking crime prevention through social development." Stancato is the co-ordinator of Community Accountability Programs for the Ministry of the Attorney General. He was one of the two guest speakers at a gathering last week designed to kick off Whistler’s new Safe Community Committee being spearheaded by Alix Nicoll and Andrée Janyk. The committee will serve as an umbrella group for other community initiatives geared towards safety. "We are not looking to reinvent the wheel," said Nicoll. The goal is for the committee to meet about four times a year to pull the efforts of various groups together. The committee has yet to be formally struck; that will happen at a meeting slated for Oct. 14. The vision will be to foster community safety, school safety and citizenship. Representatives including the chamber of commerce, the Whistler Resort Association, Whistler-Blackcomb, councillors, health services, local doctors, the schools, the municipality and RCMP have been invited to the table. Janyk said parents and students will likely participate through the involvement of the schools on the committee. "One aspect of the whole thing is we, as adults, need to understand our responsibilities to the community and to the children. We have a charter of rights in this country but we don’t have a charter of responsibilities." Janyk said the charter of rights encourages a "me, me, me" approach. "We would be a much better country if we also had a charter of responsibilities because that leads to a sense of citizenship." One of the initiatives both Janyk and Nicoll would like to see implemented locally through the Safe Community Committee is restorative justice. Stancato outlined an array of programs offered through the Ministry of the Attorney General he thought could be an asset to Whistler but, like fellow guest speaker Lola Chapman, he focused his talk on restorative justice programs. Stancato, who works with communities to help develop restorative justice programs and provide training at no cost, said the concept incorporates elements of First Nations philosophy. If you haven’t got to the pre-school kids, he said the next best step is to get to the youngsters who have committed their first offence and take immediate action. Instead of waiting for six months to go to trial in front of a faceless judge, after committing an offence, the offender is dealt with in days, if not hours. Depending on the model used, the offender is brought together with the victim and anyone else affected by his or her criminal action — the entire community of care. Together a penalty is decided on. The emotional experience humanizes the crime and the punishment is connected with the crime. It also helps the victim understand and often provides a sense of closure. The crime is dealt with in the community it occurs and the program gives young offenders a chance to keep a clean slate. It helps them heal before they assume a negative label for themselves. Stancato said the process has far more impact on offenders than the traditional route and they are subsequently far less likely to re-offend. He pointed out an offence is usually the tip of an iceberg of problems for youngsters that include issues at home and negative peer influences. Restorative justice programs were started B.C., about a year ago and have been implemented in about 80 communities to date. He said the four basic models range from circles to ones that use facilitators or mediators and mentors. Circles are based on traditional aboriginal justice and involve not only the victim but the whole community. In this model, a crime is not against only the individual but against the community. It involves exchanging of gifts and cleansing ceremonies. Chapman spoke in detail on an exemplary model she helped start in Maple Ridge five years ago. Her program uses mentors who help offenders follow through on their penalties. The Maple Ridge Youth and Justice Advocacy Association has been so successful 600 offenders have been referred to the program since its inception. Crimes dealt with have included everything from car theft through to arson, narcotics and fraud. The Maple Ridge group takes referrals from both the Crown and the RCMP, which is unusual according to Stancato. Offenders must consent to go to the program, which is not designed to assess guilt. Offenders must have admitted to their crimes. If they maintain innocence the must go the court route. If the victim cannot be present, victim impact statements are read which Chapman said are very effective and often reduce everyone, including the offender, to tears. Chapman was awarded the Canada Certificate of Merit in 1995 for her work. Stancato said communities like Whistler should not be daunted by the scope of Chapman’s program. He said programs can be tailor-made by picking and choosing from what already works. "Start with something small and take a minimum number of referrals. Many programs start with baby steps." He said Chapman’s is one of only two B.C. communities who take referrals from Crown prosecutors as well as police. He said the programs haven’t officially been accredited and the province is still taking a wait-and-see approach. Although new in B.C., Stancato said restorative programs are the norm in countries like Australia and New Zealand. Whistler community police officer Const. Warren Tomalty, who was present at the talk, said he is looking into setting up a restorative justice program, although he pointed out offences by local kids are rare — perhaps a handful of offenders a year. The transient population tends to create more problems. He said the RCMP already use a form of restorative justice locally called "police discretion" which is as old as the hills. Tomalty said RCMP will typically deal with a first-time offender, a shop lifter for example, by bringing him or her together with the store owner. If necessary, police will take the offender home and talk with parents as well and decide on a penalty which will usually involve paying for the merchandise and leaving the goods at the store. "Everyone has to agree," said Tomalty. "If the store owner says no way, we don’t force them. If the kid says no way, they are sent off to court." Tomalty said he has had offenders who would rather go to court and face a criminal record than stand the embarrassment of facing a store owner. He said police discretion depends on a host of factors including peer pressure and attitude. "Remorse is a big thing," said Tomalty. He said a group of young local girls were caught shoplifting last year after taking bets. He said peer pressure like this plays a large part in many youth crimes. "This way their slate stays clean and justice can be served within an hour. A court route takes six months and the punishment isn’t connected with the crime." He said parents will often mete out much tougher punishment than he will. Some of the local offenders he said, are as young as 12. Tomalty said Chapman’s program is one of the best. "I am looking into it." He said, however, the low incidence of local crime may not warrant the foot work needed to implement a program. "Right now it’s working perfectly." Janyk, however, would like to see a program cover Whistler’s transient population as well. "I think that is key. People feel transients come in and create problems. We don’t have a lot of data but I think some of our kids are as much to blame. We need to get the message out that offenders need to be answerable to the community they created the crime in instead of going off to get tried in Squamish. It doesn’t give them the opportunity to know how they hurt this community." Janyk would also like to see more of a restorative justice philosophy used in school discipline, instead of suspensions. Stancato said the National Crime Prevention Centre provides grants of up to $50,000 for safe community initiatives — anything from needs assessments to implementing restorative justice programs. He said grants are also available from the Ministry of the Attorney General.

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