Striking a balance: Restorative justice brings offenders face-to-face with their victims

By Katie Derosa, Times Colonist August 16, 2009

In the emotional saga following the brutal murder of 14-year-old Reena Virk in 1997, her traumatized parents went through markedly different experiences with their daughter’s two killers: One of denial and self-pity with Kelly Ellard, and one of remorse and closure with Warren Glowatski.

With Ellard, Manjit and Suman Virk sat on the sidelines of the legal system, spending 12 years in and out of courtrooms, watching the courts mete out decision after decision — three trials, one hung jury, two successful appeals — as Ellard continued to deny her role in the murder. Year after year, the story of Reena’s murder — how she was swarmed by a group of teens, beaten and drowned under the Craigflower bridge — was told over and over, and year after year, the Virks waited for justice.

They didn’t get their wish until this year, in the country’s highest court, when Ellard’s attempt for a fourth trial was quashed, leaving her convicted of second-degree murder. While journalists asked for the Virks’ opinions after each and every turn in the legal saga, the couple had little to do with the case other than sitting by and hoping.

But with Glowatski, things were different. The only boy among the group of teens involved in the beating — and Ellard’s partner in the fatal drowning — Glowatski pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. A few years later, in July 2006, Suman and Manjit sat across from him in a church basement in Mission — a far cry from the Supreme Court of Canada — and received two things Ellard has never given them: A sense of closure and an apology.

‘You don’t really want to sit down and talk to the person who has taken your child’s life," Suman Virk said of her initial reaction to participating in restorative justice with Glowatski.

"Seeing what he had to say for himself, it doesn’t make things right or take away the pain, but you can let go of the questions you have and put it behind you.

"It gave us a voice to say whatever we needed to."

The restorative justice approach favours making amends for a crime, rather than — or sometimes in addition to — doling out punishments.

It typically has been reserved for minor offences, such as theft, mischief and vandalism, and can, in those cases, be used instead of the court system. In more serious cases, like Glowatski’s, it works in tandem with the traditional processes of incarceration and probation.

In both situations, the premise is the same: The offender meets with the victim of his crime to apologize and to take responsibility for his actions. The programs, run mostly by volunteers, operate on small budgets and usually deal with first-time offenders.

Although supporters of restorative justice herald it as a cost-effective way to hold offenders accountable while providing a sense of healing to victims who finally get a say in the process, it has largely remained on the margins.

Restorative justice takes place in small community halls and in small basement suites, like the 250-square-foot room Geanine Robey sits in talking about how the Victoria Restorative Justice Society works.

The process involves little more than a circle of chairs and the participation of interested parties — the victim and offender, a mediator and other community members.

But the exchange of dialogue is wrought with emotion, personal revelation, admissions of guilt, apologies and forgiveness, said Robey, the society’s program co-ordinator and a former social worker whose dedication to community justice is palpable as she speaks.

"We look at crime as harm to people in relationships, whereas in the court system the crime is breaking the law and the state is the victim," Robey said.

The society’s sole employee, she gets help from about 40 volunteers, who work on about 45 cases a year.

Suman Virk said that speaking freely to Glowatski in a restorative justice circle gave her and her husband a more powerful and satisfying sense of healing than any experience they could ever get in the courtroom.

They remember seeing the remorse in Glowatski’s eyes, hearing the anguish in his voice as he acknowledged the pain he caused and apologized.

"A lot of offenders don’t see the damage of that they’ve done. They are put in the legal process and they find ways to defend themselves," said Suman, who spent countless hours in a courtroom waiting to see justice.

"The emotional pain is much harder to deal with."

David Gustafson is co-director of the Fraser Region Community Justice Initiative in Langley, which co-ordinated the meeting between the Virks and Glowatski.

He said only a minority of serious cases in B.C. go through the restorative justice process, but the percentage is steadily increasing.

His organization deals solely with offenders who are in federal prisons for serious crimes. While minor crimes are diverted to community groups by the police, the conference circles are initiated by either the victim or someone working with the prisoner during his or her incarceration.

The process is seen as a form of rehabilitation for the offender and is looked upon favourably by the parole board.

Last year, the Oak Bay Restorative Justice Society took on a high-profile murder case after Brent Stephen Martin and Donovan Robert Roloson were convicted of manslaughter for beating fisherman David Boivin to death under the Johnson Street bridge on April 30, 2006.

Martin’s lawyer approached Crown prosecutor Nils Jensen to say that Martin, who is now 21, was wracked with guilt and wanted a chance to personally apologize to Boivin’s family.

Jensen said Boivin’s son Eric was reluctant at first, but he eventually agreed. Boivin’s partner, Danielle LaFlamme, also participated.

According to Jensen, LaFlamme "felt she got some closure and she got some answers from this young man" in the process.

"The criminal justice system is a very expensive system and it’s sort of a blunt object to correcting behaviour," he said.

"Often times, it’s better left to the community to handle it."

Despite successes in the Virk and Boivin cases, without more funding, restorative justice groups are restricted to petty crime cases, Robey said.

She said the provincial Ministry of Public Safety and B.C.’s Solicitor General give restorative justice groups funding only for category three and four offences — such as break and enter into a business or simple assault.

Robey said some of the Victoria society’s most successful cases were category two cases, with offenders who had committed assault with a weapon or broken into someone’s home.

Last year, the groups’ funding of $163,000 — shared by 52 agencies: $2,500 for existing programs and $5,000 for startups — almost didn’t appear. In fact, the groups were initially told funding through the Community Accountability Program had been cut, but it was eventually reinstated after a public outcry.

For the Victoria Restorative Justice Society that $2,500 barely covers office supplies. It’s "a pittance," Robey said, mostly a symbolic gesture.

On Thursday, restorative justice groups found out funding for this year has been approved, after worries that the forecast $2-billion deficit would put it on the chopping block. It is not clear how many organizations will receive funding.

"There is a commitment to restorative justice," insists Pardeep Purewal, director of crime prevention and stakeholder relations for the Ministry of Public Safety.

"The government sees the value in it."

Yet there seems to be no clear organization around the programs. It took weeks for the Times Colonist to get a response from the ministry about who oversees restorative justice funding.

Currently, the government supports a handful of restorative justice programs under several different ministries: The Ministry of the Attorney General, Ministry of Children and Family Development, Ministry of Public Safety and the Aboriginal Affairs branch.

Therein lies the problem, Robey said. Restorative justice falls within several ministries, none willing to take full responsibility.

Most of the groups’ yearly funding comes from municipalities and local police forces. This year, the city of Victoria gave the Victoria Restorative Justice Society $10,000, while Esquimalt gave $8,500.

Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham is an advocate for the program, saying he believes it reduces crime by improving relationships with the community. He wants his officers to refer more cases to the Victoria society.

"I’d like to see them running off their feet," he said. The department refers about 50 cases a year.

But that pales in comparison to Nanaimo, where the Community Justice Forum averages 300 cases a year and has reached about 8,000 participants since the RCMP and local John Howard Society started the program 13 years ago. Funded largely by a yearly $50,000 grant from the city of Nanaimo, the forum is touted as one of the most successful programs in the country.

According to Liz Elliott, a director at the Centre for Restorative Justice at Simon Fraser University, the B.C. government initially took the lead on restorative justice initiatives in the late 1990s, but provinces like Alberta have far surpassed its scope because of greater government support.

In June, Alberta announced $306,000 for 11 restorative justice programs in the province, including $45,000 for one program in Edmonton. That was in addition to $50,000 that the province kicked in so the groups could form a provincial association.

In April, community justice groups on the Island formed the Vancouver Island Region Restorative Justice Society to heighten their lobbying power and, they hope, get more funding.

"We really do need a provincial association. It’s just really hard to do that with no money," Robey said.

For the B.C. government, it’s not so simple, either. Budgetary restraints aside, restorative justice can be a hard political sell to voters.

It’s difficult for the government to support a process that can’t be summed up in a quick sound bite or headline, especially one that might appear to be soft on serious crime, said Jim Hackler, a criminologist from the University of Victoria.

"Politically, we sell restorative justice as a program to deal with less serious offenders.’ "

The unpredictable nature of restorative justice makes it risky for politicians to stick their necks out for it, said Tara Ney, chairwoman of the Oak Bay Restorative Justice Society, especially if a community is outraged about a specific serious crime.

"It’s not so controlled and it makes some people nervous," she said.

And with good reason, said criminal legal expert and University of Ottawa professor David Paciocco as he lists some of the ways restorative justice threatens the fundamental principles of the legal system.

The rule of law demands the same treatment for all, but restorative justice could produce favourable results just for the offenders whose victims are willing to meet with them.

"If you allow restorative justice to be determined by the crime victim, then the welfare of the offender will depend upon the victim and not the rule of law," Paciocco said.

There are risks for victims as well, he said. In some small towns or First Nations communities, a victim could feel coerced into participating in a restorative justice circle.

Most importantly, he says, the public does not accept the premise that serious criminals should receive softer sentences just because they participated in a restorative justice circle.

"There is a sense that restorative justice is not focused on retribution but a more healing, softer, gentler approach that some people find inappropriate to serious offences," Paciocco said, which is why there is still limited government funding for the program.

Advocates of restorative justice point to the money saved in the long run if the program can successfully reduce reoffending rates among criminals.

According to a 2003 study by Public Safety Canada, restorative justice programs led to a three per cent decrease in recidivism. Surprisingly, the programs were more effective with adults (eight per cent reduction in reoffending) than with youth (two per cent reduction).

"The costs of restorative justice are front-end and highly visible and whether it’s right or wrong, governments tend to not want to fund that," said Paciocco. "They don’t seem averse to building prisons."

Prisons are "steel warehouses" in the words of Hugh Conley, a former convict who participated in restorative justice during an eight-year sentence at William Head Institution for robbery and unlawful confinement.

He credits the programs with keeping him on the straight and narrow after a lifetime of crime.

Conley said it’s short-sighted to use prisons as solely a place to physically prevent criminals from committing crime.

"You can lock a person up but eventually they get out," he said. "A lot of guys when they get out, they are worse because they carry all this bitterness. If there isn’t the mediation and healing to address that bitterness you are just sending out monsters."

After regularly attending the restorative justice coalition meetings, he was trained as a facilitator.

He oversaw two conferences between victims and offenders and watched inmates show the kind of emotions that are typically choked by the cell-block expectations of machismo and iron-fistedness.

"At first, you see people come in the doors and you see this hard-textured kind of man. And then, after a few weeks, you see a little glimmer of compassion and softness. And the next thing you know you see this raw emotion coming from this really hard man. You know when you see that, you’ve reached them."

Gustafson, co-director of the Langley-based program, concurs. He has watched murderers and other serious offenders break down emotionally as they face what they’ve done and he waves off accusations that the process is soft on crime.

"Sometimes facing your victims is the hardest thing we can have people do," Gustafson said.

"Offenders say getting to face the community and repaying victims is much harder than jail time."

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