In Canada, Solving Youth Crime Tribal Way

By Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 12, 1998 | Go to article overview

In Canada, Solving Youth Crime Tribal Way


Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On one side are crime victims eager not so much for retribution as for closure.

On the other side are government officials looking to cut the costs of the justice system, including the cost of housing prisoners.

In the middle is the restorative justice movement. Restorative justice, which sees crimes as offenses against individuals and communities rather than against the state, emphasizes restoration of victims and reconciliation between victims and offenders, instead of prison sentences. As Canadians prepare to observe Restorative Justice Week next week, a number of communities across the country are claiming some remarkable successes in handling juvenile crime, in particular, through alternatives to traditional court processes. Take Sparwood, British Columbia, for instance, a coal-mining town of 5,000 residents policed by a six-member detachment of Mounties. The number of juvenile cases in the courts has dropped from 64 in 1994 to zero so far this year, according to Glen Purdy, a Sparwood lawyer who trains facilitators in a restorative justice method called "family group conferencing." In January 1995, Sparwood started its conferencing program. Mr. Purdy says that year, 48 cases of juvenile offense were "conferenced," and none ended up in court. The downward trend continued in the following years, and this past year, Sparwood had only four cases of juvenile offense. "They were all done in conferencing," says Purdy. Since the institution of the program, only three or four cases have had to be referred to the courts. Conferencing brings together offenders and victims, with their respective support teams (parents, spouses, close friends), the police officer on the case, and other interested parties, plus a facilitator. The offender gives his or her account of the incident. Then others have a turn to explain how the offender's behavior affected them. This phase of the conference, called "the shaming," is intended to make the offender aware of the gravity of his or her behavior. "We want to hit them emotionally," says Purdy. "The victim has the last word," he adds. The next phase is a "reintegration," whereby the group works out a plan for restitution and an appropriate punishment. This may involve community service or work to be performed for the victim. Sometimes, Purdy notes, the victim gets involved as a mentor to the offender. That's what Wilf Lynk did. "We had a young fellow who shoplifted a $100 shirt" from Mr. Lynk's shoe and clothing store, he says. "He was quickly spotted around town. He admitted that he took it. "I had a chance to tell how it affected me.... Some stores have signs saying, 'Only three teenagers at one time in the store,'" because of concern about shoplifting. "But I made a point of saying I don't do that. It wasn't the loss of the goods so much as the disappointment that it happened in my store." The sentence worked out was restitution for the item plus 10 weeks of working in Lynk's store. "For the first two weeks, he was just doing his time. I asked him, 'What do you want to learn {about the business}?' But he just did menial tasks." After a while, he came around, though, and started learning the business, and even worked on after the 10 weeks were up. "From what I understand, it was a typical experience" of conferencing, Lynk adds. "It was a pretty heavy experience. Pretty emotional. The kid did his own sentencing. He was told that the normal sentence for something like this is 15 to 100 hours. …

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