The Nelson Police Department has decided to make its restorative justice program a priority.
The program is an alternative to the court system for people who admit responsibility for a property crime (shoplifting, vandalism, thefts, mischief).
Nelson’s new police chief Donovan Fisher recently told Nelson City Council that the program, in place at the department since 2014, has not been performing well because police officers and the Crown have not been referring enough cases to its trained volunteers.
“We could do a better job of publicizing it and explaining it,” he told council. “There is a misconception that it is a get-out-of-jail-free card for the offender.”
Fisher has given Sgt. Paul Bayes the job of training other officers to recognize potential restorative justice cases and refer them to the new program manager, Kathy Centrone, who was hired this year.
In the restorative justice process, an offender and their victim, along with a support person chosen by each one, and a trained restorative justice volunteer, all sit in a circle. Both sides listen to each other’s story as the volunteer facilitates. The accused person hears how the victim has been affected by the crime.
The point is to come to resolution, to make amends in a way agreeable to both sides.
“People say, oh, [restorative justice] just a slap on the wrist,” says Centrone. “But that’s not actually true, because when you sit in a circle with the affected person and the responsible person and their support people, there’s a lot of power in that.
“And it really becomes eye opening when you hear, and you see, how [the offence] actually affected somebody. Or when you see that the person who is responsible is actually taking ownership. It’s quite emotional.”
For some victims, all they need is the frank conversation and an apology, Centrone says. They just need to be heard. For others, it might result in the victim and offender working together to re-paint a graffitied fence or repair other damaged property.
“There’s a lot of hope in there,” Centrone says. “And I think we kind of need some hope right now.”
The main criterion for the entry into the program is that the victim and the offender are both willing to participate. Without that, the case will proceed through the usual criminal court process. And to qualify, it has to be a property crime, not a “people crime,” Bayes says.
But sometimes it’s also a question of whether the offender is a good fit, and this can be a judgement call on the part of the police officer or the program manager. Sometimes the program does not work for chronic offenders.
“The beauty of Nelson is we’re small,” says Bayes. “We know most of our chronic offenders. So we can fairly accurately predict whether they would work with the program.”
Centrone says her first priority in her new job is to connect with all police officers.
“First and foremost for me is relationships,” she says. “I think you can’t get anywhere if you don’t have a relationship and if you don’t have trust because people won’t connect.”
Her next priority is the schools, for which the program has a schools coordinator.
Centrone, who has worked for School District 8 as a counsellor, said the co-ordinator is working now in one school with two volunteer facilitators, training teachers.
“Then they’ll do what’s called a circle series,” Centrone says, “where they go into one or two classes for eight-to-10 weeks and do restorative justice training practices with the youth in the class.”
She said she also plans to collaborate with other similar programs around the West Kootenay.