Is a restorative justice approach appropriate for Dalhousie?

student protesters

Protesters at Dalhousie University on Dec. 19 demand the expulsion of ‘DDS Gentlemen ‘dentistry students (Yalitsa Riden/Twitter published in Toronto Sun)

A Facebook group called the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen might sound respectable. It was anything but. This was a site of sexually-explicit and violent discussions, many of which were directed against the female colleagues of those Dalhousie dentistry students who were part of this group.

Since the contents of the misogynistic Facebook page have become known, Dalhousie University is scrambling to figure out how best to respond. Currently the 13 ‘DDS Gentlemen’ involved are suspended from clinical practice and will attend classes separately from other students.

One of the approaches being considered to further address the issue is a restorative justice (RJ) approach. In a RJ process, victims and offenders meet to discuss the offence and the impacts it has had on them. Importantly, victims get to express not only how they have been effected, but also how they think the offenders should be punished.

Nova Scotian lawyer Danny Graham says this situation is an ideal opportunity for a restorative justice approach since it could address underlying issues like sexism and rape culture on university campuses. Similarly, Gerald Hashey, a senior manager with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, says the restorative justice process will “keep close to heart the interests of the female students and the general public.”

However, there are concerns that a restorative justice approach, in which the victims must be in the same room as the offenders, could re-victimize the women and trigger painful emotions.

Recently, a group of fourth-year female students who were the subject of some of the offensive Facebook posts wrote an open letter to the president of the Dalhousie saying that they are being forced by the university to accept a restorative justice approach. They have been told their choice is either this or a formal process in which they would be publicly named.

The fact that these women are so fearful of being publicly named is telling. Like any other victims of sexual assault and harassment, they know they could face backlash not only from the male students but also from the broader community. They know this scandal could follow them for years and damage their social and professional reputations. Yet they were victimized simply because they are women and are Dalhousie dentistry students. This fear of shaming needs to be addressed as much, if not more so, than the misogyny of the male students.

The restorative justice process is meant to empower victims, ensure that their voices are heard, and give them a supported, not shamed, position. But the women at Dalhousie say they feel silenced by the university and coerced to participate.

Victims should never be forced into a restorative justice approach, especially victims of sexual violence.

By failing to ensure that the victims actually want to participate in a restorative justice approach, the university is undermining its potential to empower the women directly impacted. There is a risk that this particular RJ process at Dalhousie could backfire. This could jeopardize future RJ processes in Canada since, across the country, people are watching most closely.

What do you think? Is RJ appropriate for this situation at Dalhousie?

Resources on the use of restorative justice in cases of sexual violence and abuse can be found on Restorative Justice Online.

Kienan’s return: a positive crime story

Very encouraged to read a positive story relating to criminal justice. Lately I’ve been so caught up with the omnibus bill and all of its misguided legislation that it’s easy to get cynical and discouraged.

So it was nice to read a story about the parents of the little boy who was abducted in B.C. and see an example of compassion and meaningful encounters.In case you don’t know, last month a three-year old boy was abducted from his bed at home in Sparwood B.C. The parents made a public appeal for his return and to everyone’s astonishment, little Kienan was returned unharmed.The parents do not think he was harmed emotionally or physically.

The man accused of kidnapping Kienan was found not long after and is being held in prison until his trial.

What is so striking and encouraging about this story is not just the safe return of the boy, but also that his parents asked to meet with their son’s kidnapper and were allowed to do so.

Shortly after the man had been arrested, Kienan’s parents had a face to face conversation with him at the local RCMP station where they were able to ask the questions weighing on their mind and “talk it through”.

The father credits his strong Christian faith with his ability to meet with, and forgive, his son’s abductor.

This is a lovely story of compassion, but it is also a great illustration of how justice could become more meaningful for victims. Most victims of crime are plagued with questions, yet very few will have the chance to express these questions to the perpetrator of the crime and get some closure from that.

While certainly it would not be possible or advisable to have victim/offender encounters arranged following every arrest – the fact that in this case there was a positive encounter is encouraging. I commend the Herbert family for their courage, strength and compassion. And I commend their local RCMP office for seeing the value in the encounter and allowing it to happen.

“What does vengeance do,” Kienan’s father asked. “Anger feeds anger and hate feed hate.”

In so many way’s Kienan’s story is one of beautiful hope.

Canada’s crime rates steadily falling

crime reates

Police reported crime rates have fallen for 20 years (Statistics Canada)

The next time you hear a politician claiming that the reason we need to invest billions of dollars into building more prisons and warehousing more people within them, please bear in mind a recent report from Statistics Canada which shows that crime rates continued their long-term downward trend in 2010.

Crime rates have been falling steadily for the past 20 years. The majority of the decline last year was in property crimes like break-ins and car theft. Decreases were also reported in many offences such as homicide and serious assault. The index measuring the severity of crime also fell by 6% to its lowest point since 1998 when the index was first available.

Our national rate of homicide is 1.62 per 100,000. While it’s very hard to make international comparisons about homicide due to variances in reporting, categorizing, etc., as a rough point of comparison I would like to point out that homicide rates, according to Wikipedia, in some other countries of the world: Honduras, 77; El Salvador, 70; Colombia, 32; Brazil, 25; Mexico, 18; America, 5.

Some types of crime did increase last year, such as child pornography, sexual assault, criminal harassment and drug offences (about half of which were for pot possession). However, most crimes are non-violent (4 out of 5 offences). And almost 2/3 non-violent offences are minor (theft under $5,000, mischief and break-ins).

Also contrary to the fear rhetoric of politicians, Toronto has one of the lowest crime severity index reports of Canada’s cities (the lowest being Guelph, followed by Quebec, Toronto and Ottawa). And despite the image often portrayed of violent youth gangs holding our cities hostage, youth crime rates have declined by 7%. And yet the federal government is seeking to substantially harden the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Despite this steady decline in crime rates, the Canadian prison population is expected to grow by 4,500 inmates by 2014 – not because crime rates are going to suddenly reverse their trend, but because the Conservatives are continually changing legislation so as to send more people to a jail for longer periods. Since 2006-07 when the Conservatives came to power, spending on Corrections has increased by 80%.

‘Tough on crime’ is tough on common sense


During this election campaign period, the Conservatives keep drumming out ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric that flies in the face of research, reports and basic common sense.

Crime rates have steadily declined over the last 20 years and yet so many candidates in this election keep emphasizing how they are going to fight crime and get tough on criminals.

Even if crime was they kind of large-scale problem they would like us to believe, certainly it would make sense to implement practices that have been proven to actually lower crime rates. But no, our government seems intent on building more prisons and filling them with more people – even though incarceration is not as effective in lowering crime rates and recidivism compared with prevention, treatment, and community-led programs.

Corrections Canada currently spends just over $2,200,000,000 a year on prisons. And now there are plans to build 2,700 additional prison beds at a cost of $2,100,000,000 ($800,000 per bed). This makes no sense and Canadians should be outraged.

Be even more outraged when you look more closely at who exactly we are spending these billions of dollars on to warehouse in prisons. In provincial jails, close to 60% of the people in prison have not even been convicted – they are awaiting trial and may be found innocent or guilty of a crime not deserving jail. We keep clogging up the system with more people and paying $100,000 to $200,000 a year to keep them in jail while they wait. So much for due process or innocent until proven guilty.

Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies points out that over 80% of women in prison are incarcerated for poverty-related offences. Additionally, 82% of women who are federally sentenced in Canada have experienced physical or sexual abuse, 75% have less than a junior high school education, 34% are Indigenous, and the majority live with mental health issues.

It would be wonderful if during this election campaign Canadians challenged their local candidates and party leaders to present strategies for actually fixing our justice system.

Real justice, not more prisons

prisonThe more I learn about the backward policies our government has been advocating, such as building more prisons while reducing services and programs that actually rehabilitate and assist offenders, the more frustrated I become.

The Conservative government was recently found in contempt of Parliament (something unprecedented in Canadian history) in part for failing to disclose the full cost of their ‘tough-on-crime’ agenda. They have already acknowledged that they will spend an estimated $6 billion in construction costs alone for new prisons, but what we don’t know is the real total which will be spent on incarcerating and warehousing all the new convicts. Budgets for prison infrastructure have already more than doubled in five years (from $88.6-million in 2005–6 to $211.6-million in 2010–11).
To make sure these prisons are filled, the Conservatives are changing the Criminal Code to increase mandatory minimal sentences and remove the discretionary powers of judges who might recognize that an offender is not actually a threat to the community and that the interests of all parties – victims, community and offender – are best served by using alternatives to prison such as reparation, restitution and treatment.
Yet while this election was brought about by issues of contempt and spending on prisons, these issues have all but disappeared from the media.
Should you encounter any candidate in the next few weeks, or have a chance to ask questions which may be put before political parties, you may want to remind candidates about what triggered this election and ask if our tax dollars will continue to be dumped into ineffective, pricey ‘tough-on-crime’ agendas.
You could mention that more than a third of prisoners in provincial jails have not even been convicted of a crime – they are awaiting trial. The majority of our inmates are serving a sentence for a non-violent offence (78% and 31% in provincial and federal penitentiaries respectively). Many repeat offenders are mentally ill – they require treatment, health services, education, housing and employment.
Ask for real improvements to our justice system, not simply more prisons.

Bill C-23: Pardons will be more difficult to obtain

On June 17, 2010, the House of Commons split Bill C-23 (An Act to amend the Criminal Records Act) into 2 new bills – C-23A and C-23B. Bill C-23A was passed quickly without much debate – pushed through because Karla Homolka, having completed a 12-year manslaughter sentence, would have been eligible for parole under the old legislation and the government used her example to push for legislative changes. It essentially allows the National Parole Board to “deny any pardon that would bring the system into disrepute”.

The second part of the bill – C-23B: Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act, is currently before the house. It addresses the remaining aspects of Bill C-23 with such things as substituting the term “record suspension” for “pardon” and extending the period of ineligibility for a record suspension to five years from three for summary conviction crimes, and to 10 years from five for more serious indictable offences such as manslaughter. It also makes those convicted of sexual offences against minors and those who have been convicted of more than three indictable offences as ineligible for a record suspension.

And as with the other current ‘tough on crime’ legislation initiated by the Tories, there is no evidence that this Bill will result in gains to public safety or that it will further the objective of protecting victims. Instead, it’s been described by Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, as “yet another sad and sorry attempt to inflame, rather than to inform, the public.”

First, to be clear, pardons do not mean that people’s criminal records are erased, but that the information is removed from public record so as to improve their chances of obtaining employment and reintegrating into society. For example, a pardon ensures that a sexual offender’s criminal record doesn’t show up on checks of the Canadian Police Information Centre, unless the offender applies for a job involving children, the disabled or any vulnerable group of people.
Pardons can only be applied for after the expiry of a sentence, which means people have paid all restitution orders, served all of their time and satisfied their probation orders. Since 1970, more than 400,000 Canadians have received pardons,96% of which are still in force – meaning the recipients remain crime-free within their communities.
But the government is proposing to extensively lengthen the amount time before which people can apply for pardons – to 5 from 3 years for summary conviction crimes, and to 10 from 5 years for more serious indictable offences, such as manslaughter
And in addition to delaying pardons, the cost of applying for pardons will increase to $631. Only 2 months ago they already bumped the price to $150 from $50. This may not seem like a lot of money too most, but to people who have been unable to find real work due to their criminal records, this could be an insurmountable obstacle.
Because without a pardon – in other words with a criminal record – a person’s chance of finding decent work is extremely limited. And lack of employment is very highly correlated with likelihood to re-offend. Unpardoned, people also continue to live with stigma and oppression, exacerbating such things as low self-esteem and social isolation which further contribute to anti-social behaviour.
So essentially, by making it harder for people to obtain pardons, the government is increasingly the chances that they will commit more crime – in other words, actually threatening the safety of communities.

EMCP, Carleton University

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exploring, questioning, challenging: research as play

Philippe Mineau



Critical perspectives on social justice