Restorative justice program a first for university students

Dalhousie project tries new approach with offenders who are drunk or cause minor property damage.

Jake MacIsaac, a member of Dal Security, supports the new restorative justice project because he thinks it will help prevent crime and other offences on campus. Photo: Elise Palmer
Jake MacIsaac, a member of Dal Security, supports the new restorative justice project because he thinks it will help prevent crime and other offences on campus. Photo: Elise Palmer

University students stumbling home after a night of heavy drinking are a common sight in Halifax. Most of them get up the next morning with nothing more than a hangover, but some wake up to a $125 ticket for public drunkenness.

Starting this fall, students at Dalhousie University charged with minor offences such as this can opt into a new project that allows them to bypass the court system and avoid fines.

Since the project began in September, nearly 100 university students have been referred to a restorative justice project, the first of its kind in Canada for university students.

Rather than face criminal charges or fines, students “face the effects of what they’ve done by talking directly to the person they’ve harmed,” says Diane Crocker, a criminologist at Saint Mary’s University and an advisor for the project.

The project, a two-year partnership between Dalhousie, Halifax Regional Police and the province, deals with liquor violations, bylaw infractions and minor crimes such as vandalism. More serious offences, including sexual assault, are not eligible.

Restorative justice is sometimes seen as an easy way out, says Dianne Norman, the project manager, because offenders avoid punishment and a possible criminal record.

It’s just the opposite, she says. Restorative justice holds students “at a way higher level of accountability than just never having to see the person again and getting a slap on the wrist,” says Norman.

“Just simply punishing someone doesn’t necessarily change their behaviour,” says Norman. “It actually encourages repetitive behaviour.”

Proponents of restorative justice claim it results in fewer repeat offenders than the traditional court system. Crocker, however, says project’s goals include “trying to build relationships between students and the community.”

This isn’t a free ride for Dalhousie students, nor is it “a backdoor to get out of a ticket,” says Norman. “It’s an arduous process to go through.”

To deal with a noise complaint, for instance, neighbours might be brought in to talk to students and explain why noise late at night is so troublesome.

A bar owner might explain what happens when a student uses a fake identification, such as the bouncer losing his job or the bar being temporarily shut down. 

“In the traditional legal system, people get lost between the cracks,” says Matthew Thomas, a casework coordinator for the Nova Scotia Restorative Justice Society Program, a similar program that targets offenders aged 12 to 17.

Thomas says restorative justice is popular with both victims and the community because everyone feels their voices are heard.

A study by the federal Justice Department in 2012 supports Thomas’s argument, concluding that restorative justice leaves victims and offenders with more satisfaction in the process and the outcome than the traditional legal system.

Whether the Dalhousie project will live up to the claims of restorative justice is too early to say. To date, none of the students have completed any of the process beyond the intake interview but Norman hopes to have the first round of tickets wrapped up in November.