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BC NDP government seeks restorative-justice system for some offences

B.C. Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth, shown in this 2015 file photo, said “It works in terms of helping victims with issues around closure, and ensuring they’re heard and the offender is less likely to reoffend. It works.”

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's new government wants to enact a province-wide restorative-justice system for some offences, allowing victims and offenders to resolve their issues in such criminal matters as vandalism and assault, the Solicitor-General says.

Mike Farnworth said, in an interview, that it's time to significantly broaden a restorative-justice system that has seen about 50 programs – dubbed Community Accountability Programs and eligible for $2,500 funding each – financed by NDP and BC Liberal governments since 1998.

"The goal, in my view, is to extend it, to make sure that it's province-wide," Mr. Farnworth said. "We need to see it on a more province-wide basis, and that's the direction we'd like it to go."

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He added, "It works in terms of helping victims with issues around closure, and ensuring they're heard and the offender is less likely to reoffend. It works."

The NDP committed to the approach in its platform and Mr. Farnworth said his ministry will now be working through the details to make it a reality in dealing with some issues in the province's courts.

"It's certainly something I would like to move on sooner rather than later," he said. "Is it going to happen next week? No. Is it something I am going to be looking at as a priority? Yes."

The provincial interest was hailed by the president of the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Bar Association, which has called for a shift in this direction.

"We're please because many of the offences committed and dealt with in the criminal-justice system result in outcomes that are not the best for the community, offender or victim," Michael Welsh said in an interview on Sunday.

A justice agenda report released earlier this year by Mr. Welsh's association says B.C. has not gone far enough in this area, noting, "While research points to the effectiveness of restorative-justice programs, the justice system in British Columbia has been slow to take advantage of its benefits."

Restorative justice, says the report, aspires to involve the victim, offender and their communities in dialogue to address the needs of those harmed as well as the underlying causes of the act. Outcomes can include restitution, counselling, apology letters and/or community service as well as "creative solutions" proposed by key stakeholders.

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Mr. Welsh noted that the justice system currently allows for victim-impact statements, but, in many cases, these are not conveyed to the accused, but rather read by the judge in considering sentence.

He said there are many models for proceedings. "I don't know what models would be looked at. I'm glad there's a willingness to explore these kinds of alternatives," he said.

The bar association report said building a "robust and comprehensive" restorative-justice program would require such elements as funding to allow community-based restorative-based justice organizations to accept all referrals from police and the Crown, and the development of common standards and training programs across B.C. It would also be necessary to authorize community programs as alternative measures under the Criminal Code.

Mr. Farnworth, who noted he has long talked to stakeholders about the issue and come to appreciate the possibilities, said it is too soon to talk about the details of a budget for enacting such an effort, but said proceeding is "a combination of funding and a desire to make something happen."

The program, he said, would be available to everyone, but be voluntary. "The justice system isn't made up of one size fits all. You need a whole range of different tools and ways to deal with these kinds of issues. There are many situations and circumstances where it can be successful, but that doesn't mean it works in every situation or is even appropriate in every situation."

Mr. Farnworth said it would not be appropriate in cases of murder, for example. However, it could be appropriate for break and entry, vandalism and certain kinds of assault cases.

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The BC Liberals did not respond to a request for comment on restorative-justice programs.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More


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