Restorative justice would accomplish much more than tough riot sentences


By Evelyn Zellerer, February 20, 2012



How do you feel about Ryan Dickinson's sentence? That was the opening question I was asked in an interview with CBC News. Dickinson, who is 20 years old, is the first person sentenced in connection with Vancouver's Stanley Cup riot. He pled guilty and was given 17 months prison and two years probation.

I feel some relief that finally the cases are being dealt with. It's been eight months since the riot and that's a long time to wait for closure. The criminal justice system is a very slow, cumbersome, and expensive bureaucracy. Shortcomings are obvious; B.C. premier Christy Clark just announced a review of the justice system with a focus on reform.

I also feel sad and frustrated. Authorities in B.C. have chosen a strictly criminal justice approach—police, courts, and prison. What a tremendous loss of an opportunity for healing and building community.

I raise a fundamental question: what is the purpose of our response to an offender?

Do we simply want punishment and retribution? That's what this first sentence was about. Authorities wanted to send a clear message. If we continue to choose this get-tough, eye-for-an-eye approach, we really need to acknowledge what kind of a society that ultimately creates. And what about victims' needs?

Crime hurts. Doesn't it make more sense that justice should be about healing?

I think the purpose of our response to rioters, or any offender, should be to meet the needs of all parties through accountability, healing, and resolution.

The rioters attacked our community and many people were hurt and traumatized. Victims should be offered support and to have a say in what is required for resolution. Offenders need to be held accountable by taking responsibility, directly facing those they hurt, and helping to determine how they can make amends. And it's our community, so we need to also be participants in a justice process.

The evidence is very clear: deterrence does not work; we have extremely high recidivism rates. Restorative justicedoes work. Recidivism is very low; victims report high satisfaction and reduced posttraumatic stress symptoms as well as less fear, anger, hurt, and vengefulness. Interestingly, research shows restorative justice makes the biggest difference with serious and violent crime.

So there are practical, evidence-based, and philosophical reasons for choosing restorative justice.

Dickinson is now going to spend the next year in prison. What have we truly achieved? Are the victim's needs met and are they now healed? Is Dickinson going to be better off when he returns to our community? Are we a safer, stronger, healthier society?

And we're about to continue to rack up an enormous bill, spending millions of dollars responding to the next 125 accused.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we redirected even a small fraction of the costs, say a million dollars, toward incorporating a restorative response?