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The wisdom behind the use of restorative justice

There may be nothing in the 2011 Stanley Cup riot report as contentious as the recommendation that the government consider forms of restorative justice to deal with some of the perpetrators.

It is a viewpoint markedly at odds with the hang-'em-high rhetoric we have heard from Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu and B.C. Premier Christy Clark since the riot occurred. The latter sentiment, I'll concede, is likely shared by a wide swath of the population across the country.

The easy thing for John Furlong and Douglas Keefe to have done is ignore this area altogether. They weren't asked to make recommendations around justice-related matters. And it's unlikely provincial politicians would consider anything that made them look weak and overly kind-hearted to criminals.

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Fortunately, the report's authors aren't so cowardly.

There were three distinct groups participating in the riot: a couple of hundred hard-core thugs who arrived downtown with the express purpose of creating mayhem; a few thousand drunk, unruly young people who got caught up in the violence, and then tens of thousands of others who acted as their gallery, taking pictures and fuelling the bedlam with their cheers.

There are certainly many among the first group who have seen the inside of a jail cell before and should again. And there are others who, despite never having committed a crime before, did something serious enough to deserve some time behind bars.

I don't know how many people are going to be charged with some riot-related crime before this matter is closed, but it could be in the hundreds, maybe thousands. And many of those kids will have already faced the humiliation and scrutiny that comes with having their identity blasted all over the Internet and in the news media. And we shouldn't feel sorry for any of them.

But nor does it make any sense to put all these people in jail or even, in some cases, give them criminal records that will prevent them from getting decent employment down the road. And the report's authors feel the same way.

"Riotous behaviour of any sort cries out for justice," the report said. "And for the hard core rioters it ought to be severe. But true justice fits the crime and the criminal. There were many different crimes and criminals that night from hard core thugs to the easily excited and the easily led one-time offenders. There should be a range of remedies.

"We all want the rioters taught a lesson they won't forget. The only question is the curriculum."

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Restorative justice has been used in Britain to deal with some of those who took part in recent riots there. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said those convicted of crimes should have to "look their victims in the eye" and perform community service as part of a "riot payback scheme."

Mr. Furlong and Mr. Keefe also believe there can be more meaningful and effective ways of teaching some of those who participated in Vancouver's riot the kind of lesson a judge could only lecture them about. That is by having them face those they may have injured or whose property they might have helped destroy.

Throwing a fourth-year engineering student who got drunk and behaved like an idiot one night in jail for three months for hurling a beer bottle at a burned-out police car doesn't make sense. And the same goes for someone who may have just started a job as a mechanic. This isn't about letting spoiled middle-class kids off. It's not about class at all.

It's about common sense.

The report's authors admit that restorative justice can sound "vague and not very rigorous." But it can also be effective and more life-changing than a stint in an overcrowded prison.

"In fact," says the report, "one of the strongest arguments for restorative justice is that it is good at reaching the ones who still don't have a clue of the harm they've done.

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"In their minds, ransacking The Bay only hurt a big company. If we are to trust them again we need to know they understand that they terrified people just like them. The test of the process is not what the offenders feel at the start but what they feel at the end."

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