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Rehabilitation and restorative justice

By Benjamin Miller

“They told me you can do one of two things: you can get better, or you can get bitter.”

The above is a quote from a talk given by Florence Paquette and Adam Gervais to the Academy of Discipleship’s course on Restorative Justice. The course is being offered throughout Lent this year and is presented in partnership with The Micah Mission, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Diocese of Saskatoon. 

Course facilitator Peter Oliver from the Micah Mission said, “The course informs and encourages people from local faith communities about ways they can become involved in the rehabilitation of people who have committed crimes.” As part of my ongoing journey with the Micah Mission I attended this course and had a chance to speak to Adam and Florence.

Adam is a young man who, in 2006, was assaulted by a group of three men and was beaten so badly he spent a number of weeks in a coma. The assault was as random as it was violent and left Adam with permanent brain damage and facing a life drastically different than the one he had planned. He had, among other things, plans to teach English in China, but was forced to re-evaluate his life after dealing with the consequences of his brutal assault. He and his mother spoke movingly about how their lives had been shaped by his recovery and their experiences with the justice system. In listening to their presentation and in speaking with them afterward two things stood out as especially striking: the lack of retributive anger that characterizes their sense of justice, and the discouraging, isolating way the justice system treated them as persons harmed by crime.

In my experience, we are often presented with an adversarial perspective on the justice system. We watch CSI or Law and Order and are told stories of righteous police and prosecutors who hunt down those “perpetrators of crime” — making them pay for their misdeeds. After listening to Florence and Adam I wonder if this portrayal of the nature of justice is, in a word: justified.

Listening to them after their presentation, they expressed a desire to understand the random crime that had harmed them and expressed a need for reparations to make their recovery easier. Notably absent from their desires was the need to see pain inflicted, punishment rendered, or somebody “get what’s coming to them.” Their goal was only to ensure that what happened to them be avoided in the future. What struck me was that retribution would not have been a help in their journey to recovery. This is something we don’t often see in the media or consider when we form our opinions on criminal activity.

I was further struck by the description of their experience with the justice system: while Adam’s recovery benefited from the support of family, local community and friends, the justice system was not so helpful. They described a lawyer who was “burning out” from the demands of his job and noted the crown prosecutor’s advice not to “get too hopeful” and to avoid seeking reparations from Adam’s attackers because “they would then be forced into a relationship with these people.” They were not allowed to speak in their own defence but were offered the less personal option of “victim impact statements” which would be duly read into evidence. They commented that they felt isolated and exclude from the entire process of justice — their defence, the prosecution and the offenders.

As someone who generally has a lot of faith in the legal system, these are shocking revelations. One would hope that the justice system would heal the harm done by crime. I cannot believe that isolating victims and discouraging potential encounters between victims and offenders can build a loving or peaceful community. While I understand the limitations of a system as complicated as ours, I would expect it to focus on rehabilitation, on truthful conversation, and, when appropriate, on a positive future relationship between offenders and those they have harmed. Speaking to these challenges, Oliver said, “This course and The Micah Mission give churches an opportunities to make a positive impact in the name of their communities and their faith.”

Without rejecting the role of the legal system the facilitators of the course believe there is a more fruitful way in which victims, offenders and the community can come together to reduce the harm done by crime. I find myself sharing their belief. Restorative justice offers the greatest promise in bringing about healing and positive outcomes.

Miller is a student at the University of Saskatchewan. As part of his final year of university he is enrolled in the departmental internship program through the Department of Political Studies. Courses in restorative justice, and distributive justice inspired him to pursue his placement with MCC and the Micah Mission. Outside of university he is a member of the Army Reserve, a casual musician and an avid reader.