Restorative Justice Week 2023 runs Nov. 19-25, bringing awareness to an approach to crime that promotes healing and progressive accountability.

The Herald sat down with Chris Stokes, restorative justice coordinator for the Nicola Valley Community Justice Services Society (NVCJSS), and Cst. Tracy Dunsmore of the Merritt RCMP to learn more about this practice that steps away from the traditional judicial system.

“We uses restorative justice to offer an alternative to the criminal justice system,” said Stokes. “For restorative justice practices, it’s philosophies where we incorporate local Indigenous practices and values into the justice process by inviting elders to participate, and asking the community to facilitate the circle instead.”

Stokes and his team receive referrals from the Merritt RCMP detachment on cases that they believe will be good candidates for restorative justice, as opposed to criminal court. The process is victim-centred, and requires collaboration from both sides of the crime.

“The whole aim is to decrease the rate of victimization, crime, and provide representation of Indigenous people in the justice system.”

Justice Services works alongside the local communities, representing the Upper Nicola, Lower Nicola, Coldwater, Nooaitch and Shackan bands.

“We’re quite well established,” said Stokes.

So, how does a case make its way into the restorative justice system? It begins with a guilty plea or an admission of guilt from the offending party.

“If somebody has committed a crime, and they’re remorseful and they feel bad about it, then that somebody might be a good fit for restorative justice,” said Cst. Dunsmore. “Because the healing circle part is where they would admit their guilt, why the reasons may be that they committed that crime, and then the circle process would look at that the harm that was done, and then how we can repair that harm.”

Dunsmore gave a hypothetical example of a mother struggling with bills who may have stolen food to feed their family.

“So we need to make that right. But how do we help you, as a single mom who’s struggling with bills? There may be community services that we can help you so that you don’t keep stealing from the store, and then we repair that circle and, help them along the way as well.”

However, despite its healing tendencies, restorative justice should not be thought of as a slap-on-the-wrist sentence.

“Chris and I have sat in a lot of circles together,” said Dunsmore. “And it almost harder for somebody to sit in a circle with the person that they offended against in their support services, and the police and community members, and admit that they did something, because there is a bit of shame when you commit that crime. So now they have to sit in that circle and admit to that, and talk about the reasons why they did that, and that there’s stuff going on in their life that’s making them commit crime. So it’s hard, it’s often emotional. And sometimes the punishment is more than what they would get through the court services, right?”

Though court cases often result in probation orders, those that go through the restorative justice system often face community service instead, something that Dunsmore said can be quite effective for youth that find themselves in trouble.

“They may have to pay back, they may have to work and pay money for a broken window or something like that. So community service hours gets them out. We’ve done it with kids who are graffitiing over the town, spray painting. Okay, now you’re going to come in and clean not just your graffiti, but other people’s graffiti, and it makes them think twice and think ‘man, this is a lot of work’. So they maybe don’t go out and do that again.

“If they’re working with elders, if they’ve broken window, maybe they have to work with the school. Now they get to see the impact from the other side. So it makes them think twice about recommitting an offence.”

As a collaboration between both victim and offender, restorative justice often sees a higher success rate for both sides than the traditional judicial system. Those who committed the crime must be willing to admit guilt and help the victim move on from it, and in doing so self-heal as well.

“It gives sort of like a highest level of satisfaction for people who are victimized, because they get to be involved in the whole process,” said Stokes. They get to have a say in what needs to happen to repair that. In the regular criminal justice system, victims don’t get that opportunity. Only the Crown or the judge has that say, and often that voice isn’t listened to. So this gives a chance for them to really have an active participation in the whole justice process.

“And not just the victim, but the offender, too, because a lot of times when the offenders go to court, it’s you know, you sit and shut up and the lawyer does all the speaking, right? So even if you’re found guilty and convicted and have to do your penalty, you’ve never had the opportunity to say you’re sorry to the person that you victimized.”

For more information on the Nicola Valley Community Justice Services Society, visit The Merritt RCMP’s Victim Services unit can be reached at 250-378-5699.