When it comes to dealing with criminal offenders, Micayla Hayes believes there’s a better way.
“In a lot of cases, it’s a matter of someone having made some really bad choices,” said Hayes. “Putting them into the criminal justice system may not be the most constructive course of action.”
Hayes is the president of Restorative Justice Oak Bay, an organization that according to its mission statement, aims to “focus on the harms of wrongdoing, making the satisfaction of the victim, the reclamation of the offender and the involvement of the community as important as the letter of the law.”
It’s a philosophy shared by Ian Swan, the outgoing secretary treasurer of the association. “We have an opportunity to repair harm,” said Swan. “Of course, people are angry when they’re the victims of a crime, but the healing for the situation is often better addressed by having the offender admit to the offence, understand and regret the harm they’ve done, and do their best to redress the situation.”
In a lot of cases, offenders haven’t considered the harm that they do. “I can have someone pull out all the flowers in front of my business,” said Hayes. “They never think about the hours I have to spend repairing the damage, the hundreds of dollars it costs me or how hard I have to work to make that money.”
Admitting to the offence is the first and most critical of the criteria for offenders being recommended for a restorative justice solution. Officers in the Oak Bay Police Department are always reviewing files, looking for those with a good chance of restorative justice resolutions, but they won’t consider recommending a file to the program if the person who committed the crime isn’t willing to accept responsibility for what they’ve done.
“Everyone involved has to agree to the process,” said Kent Thom, Oak Bay deputy police chief. “Certainly it begins with the offender accepting responsibility for the charge but it also requires that the victims and other stakeholders agree. If everyone isn’t on the same page, then the process can’t work.”
According to Thom, people are starting to look for alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system. Too often, that traditional approach has failed to do anything to change the attitude of the offender or give them an appreciation of the harm they’ve done. Criminals who are incarcerated may be more dangerous upon their release and recidivism rates are high.
Victims have also become frustrated with being left out of the process, said Hayes. She says that some victims feel that offenders are never helped to acknowledge the harm that they’ve done to the victims, and the community or even to themselves.
“It can be a cleaner process” said Thom. “And it can ensure that a situation is brought to closure.”
The restorative justice mediator is the key. “We’re lucky to have a very progressive, open-minded group in Oak Bay,” said Thom. “They are really good at looking outside the box for remedies and have managed some pretty difficult situations.”
For all its success, Restorative Justice Oak Bay is looking for help. The group is in need of volunteers who are willing to take on the hard work of the agency and help the current volunteers keep the program going and expand the work.
While the organization currently handles about a dozen cases a year, it could be doing more.
“There’s a huge potential of using the system in situations like those you find in high schools, for one,” said Swan. “If we had the resources, we could apply our method to bullying situations, for example.”
For those who wish to help but don’t see themselves as mediators, there are other volunteer positions open within the organization. All volunteers receive training. Potential volunteers can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
For information on Restorative Justice Oak Bay go to rjob.ca.