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Canada needs to restore faith in the justice system: Vancouver should follow the example set by London, which gave rioters there a chance to take responsibility

The Vancouver Sun by Brenda Morrison 19 June 2012

It’s a tale of two cities, and the contrast casts Vancouver as the loser.

Last year, a few months after the post-Stanley Cup rampage, London witnessed similarly devastating property damage, burning cars and clashes with police. But the parallel ends when it comes to what happened afterward in seeking to hold those responsible to account.

Consider the tally: In the year since Vancouver’s riot, police costs of more than $10 million have resulted in 674 recommended charges against 225 individuals. Of these, the Crown prosecutors have approved 276 charges against 104 individuals. Only two people have been sentenced, receiving 17 months and one month.

To be sure, the workload of the police and the Crown prosecutors has been of mammoth proportions, with the majority of the cases now before the courts.

In our criminal court system, offenders are held accountable to the Crown. There is no process by which offenders are directly accountable to the businesses they rampaged, nor to the city of Vancouver.

But there’s an alternative. Restorative justice – used in London alongside the criminal justice proceedings – widens the lens for responsibility. It provides opportunities for offenders, victims and communities to do what the court system cannot.

It uses a process of direct accountability, whereby business owners and community members have a genuine say in what matters to them – both in terms of the impact of the crime and what needs to be done to right the wrong.

For example, a KFC store manager in London chose to participate in a faceto-face meeting with a young offender convicted of taking part in the riot. It was very important for him to talk about the impact of the riot with the young person directly.

“What happened that night was really unpleasant,” he said. “The team were frightened and one of my colleagues was injured. The store was also damaged and tills taken. But meeting one of the young people involved that night had a positive effect on us all. It’s given him [the rioter] a better understanding of the stresses that were caused to victims.”

The store manager said that during the meeting, he found himself “becoming more and more proud of the young person for facing up to his actions. Toward the end, [the young person] apologized and said he had been foolish.”

The manager felt it was not an empty apology; the young person truly wanted to right the wrong, and has signed a contract agreeing to do so. And he is following through with his agreement.

In England, ministers, city council members, and police inspectors have publicly recognized the benefits of restorative justice. They’re advocating for putting victims first, engaging communities in the justice process and offering offenders the opportunity to take responsibility. They recognize that it takes courage for each of these parties to step up, and so they’re offering community-based support services to encourage that to happen.

An international 10-year study of restorative justice, led by senior researchers at Cambridge and Oxford universities, has found that participation in a restorative justice process offers the kind of meaningful results seldom achieved by conventional court processes alone.

Victims of crime are more likely to be fully reimbursed for their losses. And the emotional impact – the anxiety and intrusive thoughts that many victims experience – often decreases.

Offenders, when given the opportunity to take responsibility and face their victims, are found to have lower reoffending rates.

Community members who participate in these processes report increased public confidence in the justice system.

Further, investment in restorative justice saves money in the criminal court system – at a ratio of 1 to 9 ($1 spent on restorative justice saves $9 in the court system).

The benefits of restorative justice are clear, and Canada was one of the first countries in the world to include restorative justice measures in our Criminal Code and Youth Criminal Justice Act. Yet many people don’t know that this legitimate alternative is available to them, and should be considered in sentencing.

In fact, the Furlong and Keefe Riot Report recommended restorative justice, and Vancouver has community-based programs and practitioners who are ready, willing and able to step forward to build safer, more accountable communities.

So here’s what we need: public officials to advocate for restorative justice as a legitimate part of our justice system; and offenders, victims, and community members to step forward and ask for restorative justice.

It takes courage – from all of us – to be tough on crime.

By offering restorative justice in concert with criminal justice, Vancouver can up the ante on being tough on crime.

Brenda Morrison is an associate professor of criminology, and director of the Centre for Restorative Justice at Simon Fraser University.