Restorative Justice Society | Student Stories | Spring & Summer 2021 | NEXUS Magazine | The Faculty of Law | UNB

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Faculty of Law
UNB Fredericton

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A conversation with the UNB Law Restorative Justice Society

Nexus sat down with the executive members of the UNB Law Restorative Justice Society to discuss their important work in the community and their vision of becoming the most effective, action-based non-profit restorative justice organization in New Brunswick. The executive team is made up of President, Catherine Sinclair, Vice President, Patrick Leger, Director of Activities, Daniel Vlitos, Director of Records, Gabriel Laidlaw-Bale, Director of Communications, Frank Gillies, and Director of Finance, Alexandra Faye Steinberg.

Can you begin by describing what restorative justice is?

Restorative justice (RJ) is an alternative way of handling a dispute between parties, outside of the traditional, more punitive, criminal system. RJ is all about bringing the offender and the victim together, allowing everyone to have a voice, and working to repair the harm not only to the victim but to the community as well.

Have RJ practices been around for a long time?

It is thousands of years old; anywhere where community is important, they're likely using or have used restorative methods. Modern RJ is based on the cultural practices of Indigenous peoples from Canada, and the Indigenous populations of New Zealand and Australia. In the non-Indigenous setting, it was introduced in Canada in the 1980s. The RCMP went to New Zealand, observed, and brought back these ideas.

What is the mission of the RJ Society?

Our mission is to support the New Brunswick community and criminal justice system by establishing an action-based support system that acknowledges criminal justice goals, the offenders’ systematic disadvantages, and the potential for healing, reparation, rehabilitation and reintegration. We coordinate with local organizations to provide RJ circle training and services.

What types of situations or disputes are best suited for RJ?

RJ can really be altered to fit almost any situation. Our focus right now is primarily on criminal law, but we are branching out into employment and contract law as well. There is a big benefit with alternative dispute resolution; companies are implementing these measures more often to avoid the expense of going to court, but the true benefit of RJ is that it brings victims into the process, allowing them to have a voice. This is especially true in the criminal context, which is the most prevalent for RJ. In the criminal justice system, you won't necessarily have the victim be a part of the process. They might give a statement, but they're not going to be a leading member of the process. In RJ, they are given this opportunity.

It tends to work best for victims and offenders who show remorse, are invested in and want the process to work. When an offender wants to be there and legitimately wants to change and better their life, that's where you're going to see the best results—regardless of what the crime might be. It tends to be truly rehabilitative when dealing with first-time offenders and youth. Young people have difficulty recognizing how their actions affect others, as that part of their brain isn't fully developed. RJ is an easy sell for youth because it allows them to better understand the consequences of their actions.

How did the UNB Law RJ Society come into existence?

The society was founded during the 2019-20 academic year by 1Ls Catherine Sinclair, Patrick Leger, Daniel Vlitos, and Alexandra Faye Steinberg. Catherine had been a restorative justice volunteer in Halifax, and after seeing a lack of RJ practices in New Brunswick, spearheaded the creation of the society. In its first year, the society’s activities mainly consisted of Catherine teaching restorative practices to the other members. Her teachings included books, videos, practice circles, and reaching out to community organizations. During the summer, five members were trained as restorative justice facilitators. Accordingly, this year, we were focused on organizing circles through the RCMP and making connections in the community.

You mentioned “circles,” can you explain what this is?

A circle is what we call the restorative setting. It's everyone, literally sitting in a circle, being given the opportunity to speak. The circle usually includes the victim, the offender, their support persons, police officers, and community members; however, anyone who brings something to the circle is welcome. Trained facilitators lead the dialogue, asking questions that allow everyone to tell their story and share their thoughts and feelings. We go around again and talk to everyone about what they'd like to see from the circle. Once we achieve a consensus, the facilitator formalizes the agreement through a contract. Usually, this is a formal contract stating what the offender has agreed to do as far as a remedy, and dates are set.

So, the society is actually out in the community facilitating circles?

Yes, we have nine trained facilitators who are leading circles in the greater Fredericton area. We have done two so far this year, and have a third on the way. Patrick, Frank, and Alexandra actually conducted the first restorative justice circle to happen during the COVID-19 pandemic in New Brunswick. Frank organized a COVID-19 implementation plan that included finding a venue that would safely accommodate a large group as we had multiple offenders and multiple support people. We had posters, directional arrows, and hand sanitizer. While it was logistically challenging, it was important to hold the circle in-person to ensure that the participants truly connected with one another.

How does the society arrange its work facilitating circles, and how does the process work?

Currently, we get our files from the Youth Diversion Team, a group mandated to divert youth aged 12–17 away from the criminal justice system. The team is run through Allison Palmer, a Community Officer in the police detachment of Oromocto, who handles all of the outer Fredericton youth files. She determines whether it is appropriate to divert a file to youth diversion and whether RJ is appropriate. Patrick, Catherine and Daniel are on the Youth Diversion Team for the greater Fredericton area and also advise on a candidate’s suitability. Once it's decided that a file is suitable for RJ, the Community Officer will send our team the file which includes a description of each person that she thinks would be included in the circle, and a background of the situation or event, mostly from the police officer's point of view. This package may also include a statement from the offender and the victim. The next step is individual intake. The lead and co-facilitator will explain to each participant the process, go through their questions, and decide on a time for the circle that works for everyone involved. 

At the circle, the lead facilitator will explain the process, ensuring everyone understands their roles and responsibilities. First, the facilitator introduces everyone. Then, the facilitator will ask each person the questions, as provided to them during intake. In this way, each person has a chance to describe, in their own words, the event, their feelings before and after the event, and who the incident impacted. Sometimes the conversations escalate and it is up to the facilitator to foster a discussion based on respect and open-mindedness. We continue systematically going around the circle until the participants feel they have nothing left to contribute. Finally, the co-facilitator asks each person what they would like to see the offender do to repair the harm caused to the victim and the community. At this stage, it is important to create SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-based) that not only consider the needs of the victim and the community members, but also whether the offender can realistically complete the contractual obligations. Once we have achieved a consensus, we write up a contract. Everyone signs the contract and receives a copy for their own records. The circle is now complete. The facilitators keep in touch with the Community Officer and the participants to ensure that the contract is being fulfilled in a timely manner. If the contract is not completed, then the matter is referred back to the police.

Can you discuss the societies’ structure and some of the other work you do?

This year we went from five members to twenty-five, and due to this growth, we divided into subcommittees to better delegate our tasks. Our event planning group organized several social events to bring everyone together; this sense of community has been particularly important during the pandemic. Our speaker’s subcommittee arranged a talk by former SCC Judge, The Hon. Thomas Cromwell on access to justice, a speaker’s event led by Justice Palmer on the Saint John Mental Health Court, a panel for the Queen's Human Rights Conference that included Dr. Nicole O’Byrne, family law and criminal defence lawyer LA Henry, and Gavin Kotze, from the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate. Our fundraising subcommittee approaches internal and external sponsors to support our activities. Our education subcommittee researches RJ best practices and the benefits of RJ on victim satisfaction, as well as offender recidivism rates and reintegration. Our marketing team manages our Instagram, Facebook and website. They ensure that our stakeholders and community members-at-large are up-to-date on our activities and educational content. It is a challenge getting people to wrap their heads around the concept of RJ; most people think in a punitive way because that's how it's always been. Our marketing team works hard to help the public understand that disputes can be resolved in a more restorative way.

We also have two subcommittees dedicated to running circles. The circle subcommittee organizes and runs the circles. These are the trained facilitators. Finally, we have the programming group, which organizes initiatives to reintegrate people back into society and provide assistance with their community work as per the contract that was decided in the circle.

What is next for the society?

In September, we incorporated as a not-for-profit. This was largely to ensure that our restorative justice practices would not be solely tied to student interest. Accordingly, we are able to preserve our longevity, expand, and gather financial support. For example, TakingItGlobal and the Crime Prevention Association of New Brunswick (CPANB) financially supported us this year and allowed us to pay for student training. We are hoping to transition to charitable status by the end of our fiscal year to attract further funding. We are working with a public accountant to make this happen.

Consequently, our membership has expanded well beyond just UNB Law students. We have other UNB students, professors, and alumni. Our goal is not just to be a resume-builder, it's really to make a difference in the community. We're involved in a restorative justice working group, which is a project through the New Brunswick Department of Public Safety that is working to get RJ implemented throughout the province. We have partnered with the Office of the Child Youth and Senior Advocate. We are managing social work students from STU, who are researching how to best implement restorative practices and a restorative mindset into different settings such as group homes, high schools, and the work of social workers. This is all working toward our long-term vision for the society to get permanent funding and potentially become a part of how the government provides these services to the community. We're working to get enough data regarding the benefits of restorative justice to persuade the government into providing permanent funding to continue our work and make RJ a staple of the criminal justice system in New Brunswick.

How can students, alumni, and members of the community get involved in the society?

The RJ society is open to all UNB students, faculty, and alumni. Visit our website for more information on how to get involved. We are always looking for new members and for alumni and other members of the legal community to speak at our events, and share their insight and experience with restorative practices. Not just on the criminal side; we are also exploring learning opportunities relating to employment law and other developing RJ areas. We have an upcoming training session scheduled for September open to anyone who would like to work towards becoming a facilitator of RJ circles. 

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