Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Restorative justice works — I tried it

He didn’t rape me, he was no murderer, yet when I faced the 20-something male stranger who kicked in my front door last month, I initially refused to shake his hand, feeling scared just sitting next to him.


In my early fifties, I was about to experience my first restorative justice session, held last Saturday, a day before the start of Canada-wide Restorative Justice Week (Nov. 18 to 25). This is a process whereby an offender and victim meet, share their views of the related incident, and come to a mutual agreement regarding accountability and restitution. This perspective considers minor crimes an office against an individual or community, rather than the state; therefore, it avoids court proceedings and a criminal conviction.


Accompanied by a young female constable, the offender and I faced each other in a small room in the new RCMP building in Gibsons, BC. My chest tightened at the sight of the man’s striped jacket, the same one he had worn that awful October night. I had been alone in my rural home, weak from the flu, watching TV in my pajamas and bathrobe at 10:30 p.m. Hearing repeated knocking, I had decided to answer the door. Perhaps someone in our community-minded neighborhood was in trouble.


Unable to see through the door’s peephole, I went to a window next to the door and pulled across the curtain.


“I need a ride,” slurred the tall, blond man in a baseball cap under my overhead deck light. I couldn’t tell if he was drunk or high. He was carrying a near-empty six-pack. He repeated the request.


“We can’t give you a ride,” I repeated, not wanting him to know that I was alone. My husband was away, working. The guy mumbled that he was from Vancouver Island and asked me if I had been there. He said someone had told him there was a party here and he wanted to know how many people were inside. Was he trying to assess the situation for an attack?


“There’s no party here,” I told him. “You’re probably looking for the Legion.”


“The Legion’s closed,” he said. He didn’t leave.


“I’d like you to get off our property or I’ll call the police,” I told him. He didn’t move. “I could call the police right now.”


“Sorry, sorry,” he said, sheepishly. I stepped away from the window. The curtain fell back into place.


SMASH! I ran into the hallway, aghast to see my locked door open, the inner left door frame broken and fallen halfway outside. Omigod. Would he try to get into the house and rape me?


All I could think was: I have to stop him from getting in. I put all of my weight, fatigued from the flu, against the door. The end of the lock reached into space, nothing left to hold it in place. I dialed 9-1-1 and gave a description of the man to the dispatcher. Relieved that he hadn’t gained entry, I relaxed a little. But was he lurking outside?


A male constable arrived quickly and showed me a photo on his phone of the suspect. Police had just picked him up on a nearby road. They would hold him overnight. More relief. He was charged with mischief. The officer asked me if I would be willing to testify against him. The man had no criminal record. But what if he sought revenge for his first offence? I didn’t want to be victimized again.


Weeks later, Constable MacPherson, the RCMP’s local restorative justice representative, had called me and asked me if I’d consider a restorative justice session. I said yes.


Now I sat in this newly built room, which still smelled of fresh wood, and at first, avoided looking at the offender. I told him everything about that night: my fear; his arrogance in expecting a stranger to do his bidding; his lack of impulse control, his unwarranted trespassing and on and on. What if he had done this to my 93-year-old neighbor? She could have had a heart attack. His actions could have caused post-traumatic stress disorder in someone. I spoke of taking responsibility for one’s actions, of empathy and compassion, how every action and statement we make has an impact, in the moment, on others.


The twenty-something constable, only four years on the force, spoke of her own fear and adrenaline that night, when she had to arrest him while alone on a dark road with no streetlights. He had become belligerent in the police vehicle, denying his actions. I found out that he had followed my neighbors down their driveway only a half-hour before appearing at my door.


The man admitted that he had once put his fist through a wall after an argument with a past girlfriend.


“That scares me,” I told him. “This is your wake-up call. You need counseling.” I spoke of violence against women. He agreed to counseling, which became a term of our agreement. If he didn’t follow through, he could be re-arrested.


He paid for my door repairs and apologized repeatedly. I also received a hand-written letter of apology. I shared my appreciation of his willingness to get help and to participate in this session. The constable said it was rare to have both parties agree to restorative justice.


Before we ended our conversation, I wanted to shake his hand. “You earned it,” I told him.


I left, feeling heard and validated. As the constable had explained, if this had been a court case, I would not have been able to address the offender directly. Such an opportunity felt deeply gratifying. I spared nothing in my assessment of his actions.


I’m not surprised that restorative justice shows a high rate of victim satisfaction and offender accountability. For minor infractions, this is how true, meaningful change begins: in raw, person-to-person honesty, one heart at a time.

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November 23, 2012 at 11:27 am Comments (3)