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Restorative Justice Hears Crime
By: Krystle Beausoleil
“If a tree falls in a forest, with no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” Of course, it is obvious, that a tree falling in a forest would make a sound, but what if there is actually no one around to hear it? The impact of that occurrence cannot be relayed and that lonely tree would be one of many others to have been broken, but not heard.
This quote seems to be an almost perfect analogy to what happens with crime. When a person is hurt by crime, they are broken, they fall, and many times, like the tree, no one hears them.
Restorative Justice (RJ) is a medium through which a victim no longer remains unheard and silent by bringing together victims and offenders and allowing communication between them. This is especially important where the accused is a youth as it provides a lesson to be learned and could decrease the chance of future offences.
Hopefully that will be the case for two accused youth that took part in a RJ circle in Sudbury. The young men were charged with breaking and entering, attempted theft of three motor vehicles, and mischief under due to the extensive damage that was caused. The other participants were the youths’ mothers, two victims and one victim-supporter, one volunteer facilitator, the executive director of Sudbury District Restorative Justice, and myself, a third year law & justice and psychology student at Laurentian University. I was honoured and excited to have been accepted by all participants during such an important meeting. RJ is a process which I have read and written about in many of my courses, but I have never had the opportunity to be practically involved. I had a front row seat to the process and was able to see the way those involved in crime are affected by it, and how they can work together to repair the harm.
Of course, there was some tension in the air, but other than that, the conference was positive from start to finish. As everyone entered the conference room, informal conversations began. All of the chairs were arranged in an open circle formation. Sitting as part of that circle, I realized that something as simple as the seating arrangement was very important as all participants were at equal positions, facing each other, ensuring open communication. Once the volunteer facilitator arrived, the door was closed to prevent distractions.
The circle commenced with formal introductions; everyone stated their name and reason for attending. It was interesting to note that the victims chose only to disclose their first names. It was at this time, that one of the youth decided to leave the room rather abruptly. The director and his mother followed him out to remind him of the importance of his participation and that the situation would be dealt with differently without his completion of the circle. He had the choice to decide if he wished to continue. Although this young man remained guarded, he returned. This event was a great example of how the restorative justice process is voluntary; however, all participants must be committed to being engaged in the process for it to reach completion.
Once all of the participants were aware of the goal and rules of the circle, the next step was asking the youths to speak.
Each young man had the opportunity to explain what happened when the crime took place. They were both asked open, unbiased, and non-judgmental questions to increase the understanding of their experiences and feelings. As the accused spoke the victims listened and seemed to feel some relief in hearing the youth put in to words the night of the crime.
After the youths spoke, it was then time for the victims to do the same. They explained what happened, answered questions about how the crime affected them and described their feelings. One victim brought photographs of their damaged car. Everyone was able to see the pictures, especially the young men and their mothers. One of the youth displayed remorse as tears began to well up in his eyes. It was clear that he was embarrassed and he had trouble making eye contact. The other young man remained guarded at this time.
Because RJ is a community oriented process, it was important to create an opportunity for input from others who were affected by the crime. That is why at this time in the conference, the victim’s supporter and the young men’s mothers were asked to speak about their involvement and feelings regarding the situation at hand.
An apology was given by one youth who was very emotional. It was accepted by all of the victims. The young man that had initially left did not apologize. He was then challenged by a victim as to his motivation and sincerity in participating in the conference. The youth did not attempt to correct the victim’s view and remained silent on the subject of an apology, causing a level of tension. However, once the creation of the agreement began, this tension seemed to subside. The discussion of the agreement elicited much co-operation from all participants and was mostly carried out by the victims. Initially the focus of the agreement was restitution based, but that quickly evolved into options that would be of more benefit for the youth. It was clear that the victims were no longer afraid and that they saw young men as making an error in judgment, and not criminals, sitting before them. They were empathetic and concerned about the boys’ futures. One victim even asked, “What do you like to do?” in attempt to gage a medium in which the young men could repair the harm by performing a service that would be a positive experience. The openness displayed by the victims was accepted by the youth, as they became more involved in the process of creating the agreement. The young man that seemed uninvolved and emotionless was now more interested and communicated what he wanted to do to help. I was also surprised to witness one victim inviting that same youth to do community service at their place of work. It was in pleasant contrast to that same victim not being willing to give their last name during the introductions.
When the agreement was decided upon, the facilitator read it through and ensured that it was clear and understandable for all. Just before the agreement form was signed the second apology was voluntarily given and accepted. This event, a simple apology, represented the evolution of the circle from one of tension and anger to one full of respect and acceptance.
While the signing of the agreement was taking place, I remained in my seat and began to reflect upon what I had witnessed. I had just been a part of a RJ conference. It was an eye-opening experience into the field of law and justice and it presented many psychological qualities as well. I enjoyed seeing the social, personal and emotional consequences of crime being addressed. I saw that RJ is the person in the forest that hears the tree fall. The process lets those affected by crime make a sound. Instead of separating the victims and offenders, restorative justice brings them together to repair the harm of crime and reintegrate the youth and victims back into their communities.