Michelle Moore, an Institutional Parole Officer at the Correctional Service of Canada’s Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford, British-Columbia, observed a face-to-face meeting between an inmate, under her supervision, and the mother of the young man he had shot and killed.
“I did not know how impactful it would be, considering his violent history. Over the years, I’d seen tonnes of improvements in behaviour and attitude, but to see him and the victim in that context,” said Michelle, “his guilt was so profound. He didn’t think he deserved anything.”
Michelle experienced firsthand the transformational effect of CSC's Restorative Opportunities program, which facilitates safe communication between people harmed by crime, and the person who harmed them. It gives victims the opportunity to tell the offender the impact the crime had on them, and for the offender to understand more fully the harm they caused, which helps them to take responsibility for their crime and find ways, if possible, to address it.
“The victim said to me, ‘Please, can you support him and encourage him to move on?’ It was something I had never witnessed before. I had no idea what kind of profound effect the victim had on his life. The whole experience was truly changing lives, recounted Michelle.”
There have been more than 1,000 engagements between victims and inmates since the program started in the Pacific Region in 1990. The model was rolled out across the country in 2004. Communication can be through messages relayed by the mediator, a letter, videotaped interviews shown to one another, an in-person or virtual meeting, or a combination of any of these.
“It gives voice and agency to victims, which they don’t normally get in the traditional criminal justice system. They have an opportunity to ask questions of the person who did them harm—to get information that, in many cases, has been unavailable to them,” said David Gustafson, Executive Director of Community Justice Initiatives Association in Langley, B.C., and a mediator with 30 years’ experience facilitating between victims and offenders in cases of serious crime with Restorative Opportunities.
CSC's mediators are highly trained, community-based professionals with extensive experience in restorative justice. They work directly with the victims and the offenders to make sure the exchange of information occurs in a safe environment for both parties.
Participation in the Restorative Opportunities program is voluntary. It does not affect the offender’s parole and is not reflected in their case management records, to ensure the offender is motivated by a genuine desire to communicate with the person they harmed. Victims who participate are often looking for the offender to acknowledge the damage they have caused, and as part of their own healing process.
“It allows that exchange of information, for victims and offenders, and that ability to reflect on what happened with the people that it involved. How personal the harm can be and how devastating it can be,” said Tara George, Regional Victim Services Manager for the Pacific Region. “It allows people to take that information they didn’t have before, and to process what happened in a different way.”
Both Tara and David note that even the most highly traumatized victims report considerable healing and recovery, and show a marked reduction in their post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD symptoms after participating in Restorative Opportunities, in both the short and long term[i].
Robyn Hissink, Institutional Parole Officer at Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village in Harrison Mills, B.C., has also seen the benefits of offender participation in Restorative Opportunities. “It gives both parties closure and a deeper understanding of why the crime occurred,” said Robyn. “It also helps with offender accountability. If they’re willing to participate, they are demonstrating accountability.”
She personally sees the parole officer’s role in the process as that of a helper. Before mediation, she helps the offender prepare by writing down things they want to discuss during the mediation, as it can be very overwhelming.
She notes it is important for parole officers to be informed about the program to be able to mention it to an offender, as an option, when there is a level of remorse and accountability that is expressed.
There has to be willingness on both sides to participate, which was the case with the victim-offender mediation that Michelle observed. Both wanted to communicate in order to come to terms with the crime.
David said that this particular case resulted in what others describe as the transformation of one of the most violent offenders we have ever seen. “He kept shuttling from maximum security institutions to the Special Handling Unit until the grace and mercy of his victim broke his heart and set him on a new path,” said David. “And he is no longer the person who committed those crimes. He’ll never commit those crimes again. Some people would say, ‘Yeah, yeah right.’ But with him, and many others, I’ve seen it.”
[i] Gustafson, D.L. (2018). Encountering ‘The Other’: Victim Offender Dialogue in Serious Crime. Doctoral Dissertation, KULeuven, Faculty of Law.