Ask Salt Spring: Role of Restorative Justice in Our Community

After a heartfelt territorial acknowledgment, 13 ASK Salt Spring participants welcomed Restorative Justice volunteers Darlene Gage and Laura Defoe. Also Zooming about with us was our new RCMP Sargent, Clive Seabrook. We all also welcomed his participation in our conversation.

We began by learning about Restorative Justice (RJ) and its exciting potential to help address the oft-discussed issues of safety in our community. Based on indigenous principles, RJ seeks a system of restoration rather than punishment. RJ volunteers work to restore a relationship between the responsible person (often seen in our culture as the “offender") and the affected person (often viewed as the “victim".)

We learned that RJ has been a volunteer-driven initiative on Salt Spring for over 20 years and may be the longest running program you have never heard of, according to Darlene. There are over 90 RJ branches throughout British Columbia with a large number of programs on Vancouver Island and even including a new one on the Southern Gulf Islands. Designed on the principle of giving both victims and offenders a voice instead of the more-rigid, punishment-oriented court system, RJ is extraordinarily-successful with a very low incidence of recidivism among offenders who complete the process.

Operating under the umbrella of Community Services, RJ gets referrals from the RCMP when cases are deemed to be more appropriate for RJ than the court system. Additionally groups dealing with conflict in areas as diverse as workplaces, friendships, and neighbourhoods are encouraged to contact RJ for help.

All services are free and conducted entirely by volunteers. Skillfully addressing conflict resolution, Darlene reminded us that, despite bringing a deep range of experience to their work, volunteers are neither licensed psychologists nor professional mediators.

A key concept of RJ explores, What does it mean to restore a relationship rather than punish or shame? Peace Making circles are foundational to RJ’s success restoring relationships, whether the issue is workplace conflict, friendships facing difficulties, neighbourhood issues, or criminal cases. After initial work has been completed and all parties are comfortable, these circles allow all parties to respectfully share their experiences and feelings and listen to those of others.

In criminal cases referred by the RCMP, work begins by meeting with parties separately to prepare them. When they are ready, responsible person(s) and affected person(s) meet in a safe, respectful circle to explore what reparation is needed to restore a relationship (if only a neutral one) between them, avoiding a litigious, shaming court process. In these criminal cases, at least two volunteers work with all parties to determine what this repair (or restoration) would look like for all involved.

These efforts often include others - like family members and neighbours - as the affected parties. In serious criminal offenses, such as gun-related incidences, this inclusion sometimes expands to encompass large segments of a community as acts of this magnitude often have widespread damaging impacts.

RJ Peace Making Circles never talk of punishment, shame, nor blame. Instead, the conversation centres on acknowledging the harm and respectfully identifying responsibility by asking: What will it take to make this act right?

Sargent Seabrook (Clive) told us that every time there is a criminal incident, he assesses it to determine whether this could be a RJ project. Although only on Salt Spring a short time, he has already reached out to RJ volunteers multiple times and has referred an incident to them. He plans to refer cases to them as often as appropriate.

We learned that Clive's criteria for referral was often dependent upon whether the criminal act was the result of someone having an out-of-character bad day - as opposed to an incident in a long-series of criminal acts. While Clive has zero tolerance for domestic violence, criminal acts that do not appear to be part of a long-standing pattern often point towards an RJ intervention. He also reminded us that the responsible person had to agree to the lengthy RJ process. Unfortunately, some prefer to use the court system, pay a fine, and go on their way without doing the personal work required by the RJ process.

When asked how many criminal cases RJ takes a year, averages vary greatly with some years as few as several and other years as many as a dozen. Each case takes several months of concentrated activity in addition to as much as a year of follow-up activities. Although already working hard, we learned that RJ volunteers, with 10-12 core volunteers and a newly-graduated class ready to begin, have enough capacity to take on even more cases than are currently assigned to them.

While most cases referred are for the non-violent offenses, Laura reminded us that RJ has proven to also be effective with violent, repeat offenses. Even with violent offenders, RJ can help a shift towards understanding, acceptance of responsibility, and willingness to repair the damage they inflicted. Laura gave us the example of inter-generational sexual abuse. In a study, 52 sexual abusers in one community completed the RJ program with only two repeating the offense. An impressive statistic, it is even more impressive when, after revisions to the program, the two offenders who repeated their offenses went through the program again with no further offensives. . . resulting in the impressive 0% recidivism for this example of RJ at its best.

When asked whether responsible parties are ever rejected from the RJ program, Darlene responded that the essential requisite is that this offender eventually accepts responsibility. This must occur before allowing the responsible and affective individuals in a room together. While taking responsibility is a hard step, avoidance of being in the criminal system is sometimes a factor in getting this commitment.

Until an individual takes responsibility for the harm, it is very difficult for them to understand the depths of this harm and begin working to repair it.

When asked whether an age group is better suited to RJ, there were two distinct answers: 1) It is equally appropriate for all ages as well as all crimes, and 2) Youths tend to be referred more often due to the perception that chances for rehabilitation are better.

This led us to a discussion of Laura’s efforts to get RJ into our schools. While circles are already utilized, she is currently being trained to bring RJ to the schools, hopeful that SD 64 will adopt the RJ non-shaming, respectful formula when dealing with student offenses. She is optimistic and already has the enthusiastic support of some high school administrators.

When reference was made to many ASK Salt Spring conversations concerning safety for all in our parks, we learned about RJ circles addressing challenges in the United Church Meadow. These circles involved church members, our inadequately-housed, and local business owners expressing their feelings and learning to understood those of others.

During the process, participants got to know one another and understanding was beginning to take the place of fear. Even though the issues migrated to Centennial Park, progress at the Meadow was noted, including a far better understanding among all involved as well as an effort to address problems such as collecting ones own garbage.

Noting the increased presence of CRD bylaw enforcement officers in Centennial Park, it was asked if bylaw enforcement could also refer cases to RJ. The answers was “absolutely!”

When asked if RJ was easier or more difficult in small communities such as Salt Spring, we learned that RJ works in all communities, each offering its own challenges. On Salt Spring, one challenge for volunteers is being able to interact - at least neutrally - to the responsible parties who have participated in an RJ process. Likewise, both responsible and affected persons must be able to encounter each other in their shared community without trauma.

A small business owner adjacent to Centennial Park spoke of her work to get folks connected find both short- and long-term solutions. While this is a long process, she credited Clive for the positive changes in the park since his arrival, citing far less alcohol and fewer arguments. It was acknowledged that it makes a huge difference when RCMP officers listen.

Clive is in Centennial Park regularly, even beginning his visits while dusty and ragged during the renovation of his home before officially taking his RCMP post. We had a chuckle imagining those frequent park-users’ surprise when their new friend showed up as an RCMP officer in his uniform:).

We learned that there are about 15 regulars in Centennial Park with only a few who are stirring the pot and causing trouble. Despite his great approach, Clive shared with us that he was striving for patience and that progress has been slower than anticipated.

Counseling, often an element of RJ reparation, is problematic. Adults often have to wait many months for mental health services from Island Health. We were reminded that access to mental health workers is also challenged by the fact that they are often needed on weekends and evenings. Unfortunately, Lady Minto Hospital Emergency is usually the only option for those needing immediate care during these hours.

When asked what can be done to address this, we were reminded of the Salt Spring Health Advancement Network’s Mental Health Initiative. We also-learned the exciting news that a local series of podcasts, initially focused on Mental Health, is beginning production.

The Salt Spring Community Health Society is also conducting a series of courses to train First Aid Mental Health volunteers to assess situations needing professional intervention. We learned that many of these graduates have self-organized, intent upon offering their services to help identify and refer mental health situations. Clive is enthusiastic about this option and, while he believes that they should be separate from RCMP interventions, he is encouraged about their potential benefit to our community. His commitment is to go to Centennial Park when things are calm to build relationships. He is hopeful these Mental Health First Aid volunteers will adopt a similar strategy.

We concluded by thanking Darlene and Laura for all their good work, also including Clive in our enthusiastic acknowledgment. Clive returned the praise by reminding us of all the Salt Springers who are currently doing such good work to make our community the best it can be. While some tweaking may occasionally be needed, he recognizes all the local effort to find solutions to those issues that challenge us.

Please join us next Friday, January 29, from 11-1 to welcome the authors of our amazing Climate Action Plan 2.0. In addition to getting a preview of its over 250 recommendations, you will get a roadmap for what we can each do to address our climate challenge. Please join us to ask your questions, listen to those of others, and participate in a lively discussion of the audacious, daunting, an exciting climate challenges awaiting us.

January 26, 2021 3:10 PM

Community Comments

  • Avatar Megan Mclachlan says:

    Was this zoom meeting recorded? Is there a place to watch it?
    Thanks!