by Mackenzie Graham
How can we reduce crime and create safer and healthier communities? This is a question that has followed politicians and communities for years. Attempted solutions have included tough-on-crime approaches and mandatory minimum penalties. However, history has shown that an increased emphasis on incarceration, while ignoring other effective approaches has a minimal impact on crime. That is why it is time to support alternative approaches that address the root causes of crime and limit harm to communities.
At MCC, we look at issues like forced migration, poverty, and violence by analyzing their root causes. By going beyond simply treating the symptoms, we can work for lasting, structural change. When applied to crime and victimization, this approach allows us to be more effective in addressing and preventing future crime and, keeping our communities healthier and safer. One uniting characteristic of the root causes of crime is that they go beyond the individual and are fundamentally concerned with the community and society in which crime takes place.
According to the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, the root causes of crime and victimization include social exclusion, poverty, peer influence, and many more. To address these root causes and to reduce crime requires more than just changes to the criminal justice system. It is necessary to utilize a whole society approach to addressing causal factors like housing instability and lack of employment among at-risk populations. Criminal behaviour does not occur in a vacuum, and any approach to reducing crime must include measures that seek to address the social conditions contributing to criminal activity.
In many cases, incarceration serves to damage community bonds thereby worsening the root causes of crime rather than addressing them. The result is that incarceration can contribute to more future crime and community harm. By looking for alternatives to the traditional justice system and building strong social networks for offenders after they are released, we can significantly reduce the risk of recidivism among offenders, benefiting the whole community. The following two stories serve to contrast the impacts of traditional and restorative justice on two individuals and their communities.
To understand the way that restorative justice addresses the root causes of crime and strengthens communities, it is important to look at real situations and stories of people who have first-hand experience. One of the most famous stories about restorative justice is the story of the Elmira case. In the spring of 1974, two teenagers in Elmira, Ontario were taken into custody following 23 complaints of property damage. In this case, “there were two men from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario, Mark Yantzi and Dave Worth, who were not willing to let criminal justice take its usual course.” In a case like this, punishments would range from probation up to 2 years in prison, where the young men would have been removed from their community and faced exclusion from society as criminals.
Yantzi and Worth proposed an alternative, an option where the offenders would be able to meet the victims face to face. “The established way of dealing with the offender left out the possibility of giving the victim a face. It also left out a chance for the victim and offender to make arrangements for restitution, face-to-face with a mediator present, and perhaps be reconciled.” Eventually, the two teenagers went door to door to make amends for their actions and paid restitution. Rather than being further estranged from their community, the two young men were allowed to make things right.
In contrast, the stories arising from traditional criminal justice are very different. Take for example a story recently shared by the Minister of Justice, David Lametti, when discussing Bill C-22, new legislation to modernize Canada’s approach to non-violent crimes. One of the goals of Bill C-22 is to address the social harm that current legislation has caused to low-risk, non-violent offenders and their communities. Lametti shared an example of this social harm, “A young man with a promising career and no criminal record, living in an isolated northern community, is out drinking with his friends. That night, he makes a bad decision that changes his life. On a dare, he fires a hunting rifle into the direction of an empty building. No one gets hurt, but neighbours notice and call the police. He is charged and convicted of discharging a firearm while being reckless. Because of mandatory minimum penalties, he receives four years in prison. This young man loses an apprenticeship that he has, a relationship that he has with someone is destroyed, and once out of prison, his opportunities are so limited that he ends up moving in with the people he met in prison. Four years in jail was finishing school for this young man who had so much to offer”.
Unfortunately, this story is only one example of how the current approach to justice fails to create healthy communities and equitable societies, often leading to more future crime. When used instead of or alongside traditional criminal justice responses, the restorative justice approach can mitigate the social harms, and the risk of reoffending can be reduced significantly. While Bill C-22 opens up the door for judges to pursue restorative justice approaches, there is still work to be done to ensure proper funding for restorative justice programs and that information is shared with offenders and that referrals are available to those who could benefit from its community-focused approach.
The importance of restorative justice is not only apparent in the lives and stories of people, but it is also apparent in the statistical outcomes. Research shows that when individuals are removed from the communities and incarcerated at a high rate, crime rates in those communities also increase. In contrast, when examining the outcomes of restorative justice programs, a report from the Government of Canada found that restorative justice programs are more effective than traditional methods (e.g. incarceration and probation) at improving victim/offender satisfaction, increasing compliance with restitution, and decreasing the likelihood that offenders would re-offend. Through restorative justice, individuals are better able to address the root causes of crime and victimization.
When used proactively and alongside traditional criminal justice approaches, the MCC Ontario restorative justice program, Circles of Support and Accountability, has seen a decrease of 70% in the rates of sexual and non-sexual reoffending. By addressing the root causes of crime, this program can reduce the likelihood of future offenses. While not a replacement for prison in all cases, this program can better target the root causes of harmful behaviours. Circles of Support and Accountability works by creating pro-social communities that support offenders as they re-enter society. This can include helping the offender to find housing, employment, or medical support. In turn, the offender commits to open and honest communication about risk factors and patterns of offending. By intentionally creating community, offenders are not left alone when they are released, rather they have the support and accountability that they need to change their harmful behaviours.
Mackenzie Graham is an Administrative Assistant at the MCC Ottawa Office
To learn more about MCCs restorative justice work across Canada, visit our website: https://mcccanada.ca/learn/what/restorative-justice
Banner image caption: Sunrise in Macha, Zambia. (MCC Photo/Todd Jordan, 2014)