A new restorative justice program is coming to Couchiching in hopes of addressing the over-representation of indigenous people in the court system.
The program is designed for young first-time offenders who commit crimes like break-and-enter, trespassing, shoplifting, assault, vandalism, or mischief.
Factors such as the severity of the case, age of the offender, and the existence of a prior criminal record will determine whether or not the offender can use Couchiching's diversion program instead of going through the courts.
Those who apply for the diversion program will have their case reviewed by a Crown attorney, who will decide if the applicant is eligible for restorative justice.
If so, the first step in the process is to host a healing circle, with an elder who represents the affected community.
At this time, the offender actually is seated with the victim and/or anyone else who was affected by their crimes.
“In the circle, the victim has the chance to tell the accused what kind of harm they have caused them and the impact that the harm has had on them,” noted restorative justice co-ordinator Yvonne Adams.
“They also have a say in what the offender has to do [to make amends],” she added.
"If the offender broke into the victim's home, then the victim would want restitution for the damages or have the offender come in, fix the broken door or window, and have a letter of apology given.
“If there were drugs and alcohol involved, then we would involve our treatment and support services,” said Adams.
“They would do a personalized plan for them to complete treatment, do some counselling, and attend meetings,” she explained.
Adams believes restorative justice is a better alternative than the court system when dealing with young offenders.
“Facing up to the consequences of what he or she has done, and making amends, can be a real turning point for the youth; and maybe next time they will think twice about breaking the law,” she reasoned.
After reparations are made and the restorative justice process is completed, it is up to the Crown to decide if the offender can have the charges against him or her dropped and removed from their criminal record.
A detailed report is completed throughout the entire process, which outlines what the offender has done to make amends.
The Crown will read the report, analyze the depth of the offender's participation and remorse during the restorative justice process, and decide if the charges should be dropped.
“It's good at the youth level because it addresses the over-representation of aboriginal people in the court system,” said Adams.
"And to address that, I think we have to start early, at their youth, to change their ways before they go into the court system.
“When we have them change their ways and realize what they are doing is wrong at an early age, it will likely not escalate into something where they become institutionalized,” she added.
Couchiching Chief Brian Perrault agreed with Adams' statement, adding that it's great to use any resources available to help lower the number of indigenous people in Canada's prisons.
“We have to admit that the justice system does not always work well for native people," he remarked. ”You just look at incarnation rates.
“Our people are over-represented in the jails and in the courts, so I think if we can deal with some of those charges in a way that utilizes our culture, it will help people get their lives back in order instead of locking them up.”
The Couchiching restorative justice program will be the first to take place in Rainy River District, Adams noted.
She currently is waiting for a new Crown to arrive to review and approve cases.
The program already has received applications from the community, and Adams hopes to get it up and running over the next few months.