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RJ Week Day 1: Sudbury.com talks RJ with SDRJ

Nov. 21 marks the start of National Restorative Justice Week

It’s a system that brings victims and young perpetrators together to help heal

By: Arron Pickard. Originally published here.

Sudbury District Restorative Justice has been in this community for more than 18 years, but you’ve probably never heard of them. The non-profit is looking to change that.

The organization offers free programs focused on conflict and harm reduction for youth aged 12-17. Restorative Justice operates on the belief that harm can be healed through the sharing of feelings and experiences, the open-minded listening and hearing of feelings and experiences, and the acceptance of responsibility and accountability.

“Restorative justice is a methodology that believes that through people sharing, speaking, and also being heard, that healing can happen,” said Stacey Lavallie, program co-ordinator with Sudbury District Restorative Justice. “It isn’t about punishment. It isn’t about retribution. It’s about both the victim and the individual who caused harm talking to each other and finding a way to make real and substantial efforts at healing the wound that was caused by whatever happened.”

Lavallie said her organization wants to bring some attention to what is restorative justice, the programs it offers, and how it is a healing, community-based methodology. National Restorative Justice Week happens Nov. 21-28 and acknowledges the impacts and achievements of the restorative justice approach and its application in Canada.

While traditional justice and restorative justice aren’t better than the other or even oppositional, they have different approaches that can be effective depending on involved parties, Lavallie said.

“Its goal is not to create healing; its goal is to protect and prevent offenders from reoffending, and they do that by removing the individual who is causing harm from society.”

It’s like if a child reaches for a cookie and the mom hits the child’s hand with a wooden spoon, she said. The child isn’t going to reach for a cookie again. It’s not because the child understands that what they did was wrong and how what they did caused harm, it’s because they’re going to get hit with the spoon. 

Traditional justice is much more effective when the person does not take any accountability or responsibility for what they do, Lavallie said.

“Restorative justice requires the person causing harm to say, ‘yeah, what I’m doing has caused harm. And I’m responsible for that. So I want to make it better’,” she said.

“If a teenager has done something like mischief, maybe they painted a swastika on the library, are they a little neo-Nazi? Probably not. They’re using symbols that they know will cause shock and will cause harm.”

They know what’s bad, why it is bad, but they don’t understand on a visceral intellectual level, that deeper level, she said. 

Taking someone like that through a restorative justice program is much more effective, because it doesn’t put them into a system where they’re exposed to other people who have done negative things, Lavallie said. 

Furthermore, she said, studies show that youth who go through the justice system and who are exposed to those elements and other people going through the justice system and are incarcerated or putting components, they tend to become more likely to be involved in the adult justice system. 

“So we work with teenagers, specifically 12 to 17, and as a diversion program, and we’re uniquely positioned to really divert them.”

Sudbury District Restorative Justice has helped hundreds of teens who have been involved in various types of crime, including hate language, sexual assaults, physical assaults, theft, vandalism, and mischief, Lavallie said. 

A good example of the healing benefits of restorative justice can be seen through one of its most notable success stories, she said.

She said Sudbury Restorative Justice helped a teen who was in a poverty situation, his family didn’t have money, so he started engaging in small thefts around the community to get money.

The teen ended up stealing some lawnmower parts from an older gentleman in the community, who would take broken lawnmowers, fix them and resell them. He was ultimately caught, but instead of going through the criminal justice system, and in an effort to avoid criminal charges, the teen attended a mediated restorative conference with the man from whom he stole.

“They got to talking with each other, and the guy agreed to let him mow his lawn for the summer,” Lavallie said.

The man got to know the teen, and he became a father-type figure in the teen’s life, she said.

“The man let him borrow some of the lawnmowers and start mowing lawns in the community for money.” she said. “When winter came around, it changed to snowblowers. So this kid basically was running his own little business, making money legitimately.”

It’s not just about the person who caused harm, she said. It’s also about the people who were harmed

While many victims have also been helped through restorative justice here in Sudbury, not every victim is so willing to meet with the young perpetrator, she said.

“That is a big challenge for us,” Lavallie said. “A lot of times, they say no. Sometimes, they come to the conferences, and they’re angry. They just want to rip into the kid who wronged them. And so there are definitely some struggles there.”

Teens are referred to Sudbury District Restorative Justice through agencies like Greater Sudbury Police Service, Canadian Mental Health, the John Howard Society.

Sudbury District Restorative Justice offers programs to youth including mediated restorative conferences, conflict management coaching and a theft education program. Adult programs are also available, such as eviction prevention and housing dispute resolution.

The non-profit is looking to expand its services, creating programs addressing racism, hate, risky social media use, and human trafficking. The stumbling block has been successfully obtaining funding for the programs and for the staff to deliver them.

“COVID-19 has increased the pressure on funding agencies and community partners,” Lavallie said. “It’s harder than ever to find money to keep the programs free, yet demand to access our programs and demand to create programs that address gaps in service is ever increasing. This is not unique to our agency – it is happening across the range of agencies offering social services.”

To learn more about Sudbury District Restorative Justice, click here.