“There is no justice.”
That cri de coeur has been heard frequently across Canada in recent years. No justice for Tina Fontaine, one of too many murdered Indigenous women. No justice for Adam Capay, who was held in cage-like solitary confinement for over four years without a trial. The cry comes from victims when accused persons are released without trial because their cases have been delayed too long. It resonates with women who report sexual assaults and police dismiss them without investigation. Canada’s justice system has come under question from multiple angles in the last year. In addition, concerns about access to justice are growing because high legal fees prevent many from even seeking justice through the courts.
Public awareness that courts and the police don’t work like Law and Order shows on TV is a good thing. But loss of public confidence in our justice system is a serious issue, especially when it is deepest among groups who feel like they are on the margins. When the erosion of trust spreads well beyond the courts, as it has between farmers and Indigenous people in Saskatchewan, pressure mounts to change a system that is change-resistant.
Some proposed changes will address parts of the system. Jury selection may be improved to better fit the principle of being judged by one’s peers. Regulations for solitary confinement are being tightened. Delays will be shortened by appointing more judges and opening more court rooms. They are important, but they will not get at the heart of the problem. The root of the problem is that our current system treats crime primarily as breaking laws, pitting the state against an accused person in an adversarial court process, whereas victims experience crime as harm to persons and communities that needs healing. The current criminal justice system was not designed to do what victims and communities affected by crime most need.
For years already some have developed an alternative approach called restorative justice. It puts the harm at the center of processes that directly engage both victim and offender. The goal of restorative justice is acceptance of responsibility, making amends to help victims heal, and, when possible, restore broken relationships. Restorative justice processes draw the community into circles of caring, instead of being silent observers in the gallery.
Christians are among the leaders in restorative justice. Acknowledging wrongs done and restoring broken relationships reflect central themes in the gospel of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The Church Council on Corrections, supported by 10 denominations, has worked for many years to promote restorative justice practices.
The witness of those who have experienced restorative justice is powerful because both victims and offenders testify that they can begin to move on with their lives. Sometimes it is perceived as being “soft” on crime, but, in reality, having to face one’s victim, acknowledge the harm done and make restitution is tough – and more effective. It is not, however, appropriate in all cases.
The state and court processes play an important role to stand between victims and accused and ensure justice is done. Given the poor outcomes of some cases in our current system, it is time to consider more restorative justice options within our criminal justice system.
Increasing the use and acceptance of restorative justice processes is one of six stated objectives for current plans to transform Canada’s criminal justice system. Restorative justice practitioners tell me that consultations have been promising. We may see how deep proposed reforms will go in 2018. Perhaps the cracks in the current system are wide enough to let in some light.
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