The Terrace Restorative Justice program has inked a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with B.C. Crown counsel marking a significant move towards expanding restorative justice efforts in the city.
This new understanding allows the Crown counsel to refer cases directly to the program, adding another tool to the program’s typical RCMP referral route.
Operated out of Volunteer Terrace’s office on Emerson Street for years, the program has been steadily gaining momentum. Terrace Restorative Justice Program Director Alex Blum-Walker described the development as “really exciting.” He emphasized the potential this agreement holds in amplifying the program’s influence within the community.
“Terrace has quite a bit of higher-level crime going on right now and it’s impacted the RCMP’s ability to confidently refer files to our program because there’s a big focus on reoffenders,” Blum-Walker said. He added that the provincial government’s pilot program to make Terrace a hub for repeat offenders will hopefully address that disparity.
Blum-Walker pointed to similar MOUs in other communities, praising the willingness of the restorative justice program in Williams Lake to guide them in the initial steps.
Over recent years, Terrace Restorative Justice has seen referrals, mostly involving vandalism, shoplifting, and burglary. Blum-Walker highlighted the local businesses’ understanding of the program, noting how invaluable it is for them to face offenders and voice their grievances directly.
The Terrace community features numerous chain stores that, contrary to popular belief, are locally managed and invested in the community’s wellbeing, Blum-Walker said.
“We’ve seen a lot of success with having the victims and offenders — in the specific example of shoplifting — feel good at the end of a Community Justice Forum (CJF),” Blum-Walker said. Describing the CJF process, Blum-Walker mentioned it as a platform where victims and offenders come to an agreement, determining the most suitable reparative action, ranging from community service to monetary compensation.
Blum-Walker said the Terrace Restorative Justice program’s approach empowers victims and offenders by granting them ownership of the resolution process. This method starkly contrasts with the conventional justice system, where victims often feel sidelined.
The newly forged agreement with Crown counsel modifies the earlier process. Where once only the RCMP would determine the suitability of a case for restorative justice, now Crown counsel will also evaluate the potential of each case.
This dual evaluation promises more holistic and accurate assessment, increasing opportunities for restorative justice intervention, Blum-Walker said.
The benefits of the program are multifaceted, Blum-Walker said. Successful completion can prevent charges from appearing on an offender’s record, potentially saving them from future professional or travel-related restrictions.
When asked about recidivism, which is the rate in which an offender might re-offend, Blum-Walker said that the statistics are much lower since a requirement to going through the program is taking accountability, admitting to wrongdoing and committing to changing their behaviour.
In a 2003 research summary, based on an evaluation of the restorative justice program in Winnipeg, Public Safety Canada found that restorative justice offenders has a recidivism rate of 15 per cent compared to 38 per cent for those on probation. While that rate increased to 28 per cent and 35 per cent in the second and third year the participants were monitored, it was still lower than those on probation who had re-offended at a rate of 54 per cent and 66 per cent in the second and third year, respectively.
However, Blum-Walker reiterated the program’s current limitations in handling more severe crime due to the lack of experienced facilitators. He says that restorative justice can be used — and has been already worldwide — for crimes ranging from sexual assault to homicide, but in those cases, it’s used, typically, when the offender is up for probationary review after serving some jail-time.
“There’s lots of situations in Vancouver where someone has died and the offender is still able to go through the restorative justice process,” Blum-Walker said. “It looks a bit differently — and, obviously, for those types of cases, you need very experienced facilitators — so that’s the reason why we can’t take-on those kinds of files.”
Blum-Walker added that power-based offences, such as domestic violence, are also out of their scope, necessitating specialized training.
Training, especially volunteer recruitment, remains a hurdle.
An upcoming session in September hopes to bolster their facilitator numbers, but sourcing volunteers remains a persistent challenge.
Reflecting on the program’s roots, Blum-Walker recalled the 1970s when RCMP members visited Australia to understand Indigenous practices, including restorative justice. Jim Cooley, who is also from Terrace and an author on restorative justice, is scheduled to lead the upcoming training session — marking what Blum-Walker says is the first time such training will be offered in northern B.C.
“The whole point of our program is to contribute to the reduction of crime in our community,” Blum-Walker said.
“We’re helping Crown counsel and the RCMP focus on crime that’s a big danger to the community and we support them by them by dealing with some of the lesser-level crime.”
Viktor Elias joined the Terrace Standard in April 2023.