12 September 2008

Restorative justice advances in B.C.

Restorative justice, the approach to crime that strives to restore the offender to society as a responsible citizen, while providing restitution to the victim and the community, has taken a step forward in British Columbia. Restorative justice contrasts with the traditional retributive or punitive justice which seeks principally to punish the offender.

The B.C. government has established the Downtown Community Court in Vancouver to deal with minor crimes such as theft, assault, public mischief, aggressive panhandling and drug possession. Although minor, these crimes constitute up to 80% of offences. Offenders may choose to go through the regular system or through the community court. If they choose the latter, they may be spared jail time and instead perform community service while participating in programs that help them with their social or health problems. The court has social workers, drug counselors and other experts available as triage teams to develop treatment plans.

According to Judge Thomas Gove, who will preside over the court, "This is not a social service agency, ... you're here because you committed a crime. And you might have to do something you don't want to do, like go to jail, or do community service. But if you come before this court, everyone you meet -- from your defence lawyer who works in the court, through the triage team, the prosecutor and the judge -- we are all interested in helping you improve your life."

The court is modeled after community courts in the United States which contributed to the dramatic reduction of New York City's street-level drug trade. Similar courts now operate in England, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere. Community courts not only offer rehabilitation rather than punishment but offer much greater efficiency in handling cases.

Although the court does not apply a full regimen of restorative justice, where victims are involved in the process and receive restitution, it is a major step in helping people who are often beset by addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty, to gain a productive role in society rather than simply discarding them to jail. According to Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Constable Tim Fanning, "Everybody who works down there knows that the lack of drug treatment and the lack of care for people with mental health issues is the issue."

Ensuring that care is available will determine the success of the court. As Judge Gove emphasizes, "We have to have our government continue its stated commitment to providing supportive housing, as well as other housing for people who happen to be poor but don't need the support. We have to have more addiction treatment programs, along with better ways of dealing with the mentally disordered."

If the court is deemed a success, the B.C. government may set up similar programs in other parts of the province. Let us hope other provinces are paying attention.

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