Justice Minister Rob Nicholson unveiled a plan Monday (Feb. 4) for 2013 that includes new legislation to toughen penalties for child sex offences, a newly-created Victims Bill of Rights, and improved protection for the public from those found not criminally responsible due to mental disorder.
Introducing tougher penalties for sex offenders and those found not criminally responsible are some of the easiest reforms a politician can make to the criminal justice system. This highly emotional issue, although important, distracts from systemic problems that lead to the inefficiencies Nicholson purports to be addressing, such as remand times, ballooning costs, mental illness, recidivism rates, double bunking etc.
The issue of a Victim’s Bill of Rights is, however, a more fruitful direction towards starting a conversation around justice reform. In its current state, the criminal code of Canada almost completely ignores the “victim.” Canada’s legal system has proven shamefully inept at providing emotional and practical support for individuals who have been victimized. The government can be commended for taking steps to address this issue.
However, by prioritizing the rights of the individual, whether the victim or the offender, the criminal code struggles to call attention to the fact that we as individuals live in community with others and that criminal acts violate these relationships. It fails to recognize the complexity of the relationship between the individual and his/her community. I believe this is one of the reasons victims’ rights are often neglected in the first place. In contrast, restorative justice has the ability to address the complexity of crime while keeping the needs of the victim in the forefront.
By focusing on individual rights, the system deprives opportunities for the victim, offender, and community to reflect on their actions and give meaning to the events that lead to broken relationships. When we fail to reflect on these events, the criminal act is in danger of being forgotten, repeated, or worse, becoming meaningless. Times of crisis and conflict provide an opportunity for communities to work together, strengthening a sense of shared identity.
At times, it can be advantageous to remove an individual from society. But with soaring remand times and close to 80% of provincial inmates serving time for non-violent crime, it is very reasonable to imagine an alternative to imprisonment for many offenders.
Restorative justice offers a counterweight to the individualism of a rights based system. And it has the potential to provide a higher degree of justice for all involved with an emphasis on the needs of the victim. Restorative initiatives attempt to recognize all the relations effected by crime not simply the “criminals” relation to the state.
Restorative justice addresses the victim's need for asking and getting answers to questions, recognizing the harm, describing its impact, and discussing what can be done to repair it. These areas would not only address the inadequacies of a rights based system but could also help society understand and work towards improving a host of other issues - like the over representation of Aboriginals and mentally ill in our prison system.
Criminal justice reform requires a difficult discussion, which, unfortunately, makes garnering public support equally difficult. But the more questions we ask about it, the more likely that discussion is to gain some real momentum.