Restorative Justice: A community response when bad things happen

Bad things happen.  They did to Katy Hutchison on New Year’s Eve in 1997. Her husband Bob was beaten to death while checking on a party being thrown by their neighbour’s son.  It happened in Squamish, a small town just north of Vancouver.  A wall of silence grew up around the murder.  It was four years before Ryan Aldridge admitted to having delivered the fatal blow, was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to five years in prison.

The restorative response

Katy Hutchison’s response to the tragic event was not get tough on crime.  She did not see how that approach would build a stronger community.  She didn’t want to be re-victimized by the prevailing justice system.  Instead, she courageously reached out to Ryan, first through a formal victim/offender reconciliation process, and since, has maintained close contact with Ryan and his family.  She wanted healing, and sought it through Restorative Justice.  Read Katy and Ryan’s story of forgiveness and restoration.

The Restorative Justice way

Restorative Justice (RJ) is a response to crime that focuses on restoring the losses suffered by victims, holding offenders accountable for the harm they have caused, reintegrating victims and offenders into their community and building peace. RJ views an offence as harm done to a person and the community; it seeks to solve the problem and repair the harm and it supports forgiveness and rehabilitation.

Reflections from the road

Since 2003, Katy Hutchison has spoken to 350,000 young people in Canada and internationally, about her experiences.  Her most recent engagement was last week, here in Victoria, when she spoke at the Victoria Restorative Justice Society’s 2010 AGM.  I was there.

Here are some of Katy’s reflections from visiting communities here and far, and as an advocate for RJ:

  • We have a moral responsibility to deal with conflict; part of being human is rolling up our sleeves and taking an active part in repairing harm
  • RJ is a way to break the cycle of violence & abuse (Ryan was bullied as a youth, then became the bully); to live a better life
  • On the importance of working with youth; when the classroom bully never fully understands how their actions hurt others, it carries on in their life, into their work worlds
  • RJ is a position one takes; a way of thinking & being a choice one makes every day!
  • We need to better harness the media as a force for RJ; for sharing personal stories in a safe and successful way; recognizing the transformative power of RJ, and not just the gory details of the harm that precipitated it
  • RJ is becoming more mainstream (with glaring exceptions); as an alternative way to deal with conflict (vs. zero tolerance approach)
  • In some fractured neighbourhoods (e.g., in urban core), schools are defacto community centres; the role of RJ is central to the well-being of youth and community

My own reflections

I’ve been part of the Victoria restorative justice community for 10 years, in various volunteer capacities; working with recently released offenders in risk of violating their parole, mediating schoolyard disputants, participating in family group conferencing, and most recently as a RJ society board member.

And though my contributions are small compared to others in my community (e.g., Etta Connor, Geanine Robey, Penny Joy, Tara Ney, Mark Hellman), I’ve seen RJ in action.  It really does help community re-connect with itself, when things go off the rails.

Circles, aboriginal ways, and RJ.  They go hand-in-hand.  They’re about collaboration. They work.

How does your community restore itself when bad things happen?

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Comments

  1. Tammy Lenski says:

    Ben, this post that just grabbed me from the first paragraph. When I consider restorative justice and stories like Katy’s, I always wonder if I’d have the strength of character to do what she has (hope I would). Thanks for pausing my day for important reflection time.

  2. Hi Tammy, yes she is a very strong woman. And, it takes a special person who can go their own way, especially when that way bucks up against such a force as the prevailing retributive-oriented justice system.

  3. Mary Morton says:

    I am in a Master’s Degree class on Restorative Justice. When the course started I wondered why we have to take this class. My idea of criminal justice is deeply rooted in traditional law enforcement. I am beginning to see where restorative justice could work in communities for a number of crimes and especially juvenile crime. I have worked with juveniles in intensive surveillance, had the, now adults in the county jail, and gone to their funerals–juvenile and adult. It takes a lot for me to say, ‘there might be a better way.”

  4. Ben Ziegler says:

    Mary, Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and insights around the justice system. I think you’d be doing a great service in sharing your story with others, particularly those folks who have only been exposed to traditional, mainstream law enforcement. Good luck with your studies.

  5. If only more took action like this- it would really help troubled communities. Sometimes its better to apologize for being right then doing nothing at all in the first place

  6. Good luck with this program in the local communities.
    Repairing the harm is important for victims and their
    families.

  7. I find that youth today are very into themselves. If they
    grow up poor then they sometimes try to lie, steal and
    cheat in the communities that they live in. It is vital
    that teens today stop and think about the consequences of
    their OWN actions. First time offenders might benefit from
    Restorative Justice in a huge way! This is challenging but
    worth the effort to turn teens around in the future!

  8. Michelle, good of you to mention local communities. That’s certainly where RJ has its power.

    Montana, your point about first time offenders benefiting from RJ is a good one, and reflects the long tail of conflict prevention. The sooner you can intervene the less the chance of repeat offending.

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