The Youth Restorative Justice Program

The Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs' Youth Restorative Justice Program has been creatively restoring relations between young offenders and victims of crime since 2001. Kevin MacDougall, Kelowna Community Policing Coordinator, assesses the program's success as definite. "It works," MacDougall says, "What else can I say? It really works."

The program is a coordinated response to non-violent offences committed by youth ages 12 to 17. Most often, youth are referred to the program for committing property-related offences (theft under $5000, mischief and arson being the most common). Minor interpersonal offences, such as bullying and cyberbullying can also be processed using a restorative justice approach, depending on the facts of the case and whether both the victim and offender agree to the program's terms.

Approximately 60 young offenders, from Lake Country to Peachland, are referred each year; in total, the program has served 785 Central Okanagan youth. The criteria for referral include the following: 1) community safety is not threatened by referring the case to Restorative Justice, 2) youth referred cannot have previous charges, 3) youth must admit responsibility for their actions, and 4) both the youth and the youth's guardian must have a positive and cooperative attitude.

Once a young offender commits to the program, the process is both meaningful and efficient. Trained volunteer facilitators oversee the restorative process, ensuring the program is cost-effective. Volunteers are recruited from a variety of locations, including UBCO, Okanagan College, the Parkinson Recreation Volunteer Fair, and the greater community.

The process itself is rather straightforward. A volunteer facilitator meets with the young offender, his/her parent or guardian, the victim(s) of the offense, and a police officer. The group gathers around a table and collaboratively determines how to best repair the harm done.

Opposed to the retributive justice system wherein the offender and victim are often pitted as adversaries, each represented by legal counsel, and rarely speak for themselves, the restorative process is self-reflective and collaborative. Victims speak to the impact of the wrongdoing on themselves while offenders must admit to committing the offense and reflect on their motivations for doing so. Everyone has a chance to speak, everyone feels heard, and everyone contributes to solutions. As MacDougall explains, this makes the approach "more human."

Agreement outcomes typically involve community service and writing a letter of apology. Community service ideas that have been used in past agreements include: gathering donations for the Kelowna Food Bank and SPCA, cleaning a Community Centre, and having the young offender shadow a parent at work to better appreciate how much time and effort it takes to earn the amount of money equivalent to the value of damage done by their offence.

The letter of apology is a meaningful exercise in self-reflection, as the youth, using their own words, must take responsibility for the offense and acknowledge the ways in which their actions hurt the victim(s) and created negative effects on the community at large. In one case, a young teen committed an act of mischief to city property. Going through the restorative justice process, this young man wrote one letter of apology to the City of Kelowna and one to his parents. It was decided that he would do a number of community service hours, split between the City and a Church. (An excerpt from a real letter of apology can be found in the Vital Signs 2015 report).

A restorative approach is of particular value to vulnerable youth in fostering a sense of belonging, rather than further isolating them from the community. Sarah MacKinnon, Centre Director of the Kelowna Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs' location, explains how a restorative justice approach to young offenders is not only beneficial for the participants but for the community at large. In her view, "youth are required to restore the harm done in the community, inspiring them to take responsibility for their community and their role as active citizens." One indicator of the successful reintegration of young offenders is the low rate of recidivism in 2014, the recidivism rate was 12%. This means that 88% of youth who went through the Restorative Justice Program did not re-offend by the time they reached adulthood.

A "successful" program outcome is defined by the experience of the offender, the victim and the community. The young offender must fully complete the agreement made at the conference and learn from the experience. Ideally, the youth internalizes a desire to change the behavior that led to their referral. For victims, the program is a success when fostering a sense of agency. Through the process, victims voice how the offence affected them and participate in devising a solution for restoring the harm done. In many cases, the victim expresses feeling healed in knowing the offender has heard their perspective.

In spite of the program's overall success, MacKinnon identifies two main challenges. First, it can be difficult to find placement for the youth due to their age, availability (as community service often needs to occur outside of school hours), and transportation issues. The second challenge relates to the program's volunteer base. While their 18 volunteers are a dedicated group - in fact, one volunteer has been with the program since 2001. It can be difficult to maintain recruitment efforts and training opportunities year round. Ensuring that volunteers have proper guidance and minimizing volunteer turnover is important for the program's operational capacity.