Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Vancouver riots and restorative justice

    By now most people have witnessed the riots that ensued after the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh and final game and thus won the Stanley Cup. Aside from the deplorable conduct of some of the Canuck players on the ice during the series, the even more deplorable behavior of their fans after that game have sullied the once proud name of the city of Vancouver.
    TV images were flashed all over the world of kids setting cars on fire, breaking windows and looting stores. The same scenes were captured on cellphones, unlike the riots in 1994 when Vancouver had also lost the final game of the series.
    For the sake of those who may not have seen these scenes, or have not kept up with the aftermath, I will briefly review what happened during the next few days. I also want to make a comment or two on how the city of Vancouver should respond.
    These riots were not initiated by anarchists, as was first asserted by some in the media, but rather by kids who came largely from well-to-do homes. One 17-year old kid has already apologized profusely to his parents and the general public for setting a police car on fire, but only after he had been suspended from Canada's water polo team. The family had had to go into hiding.
    Many residents of Vancouver were so sickened by what they saw on TV that they rushed downtown and wrote comforting messages on plywood panels that had been installed to cover the broken windows of the Hudson's Bay store. Others helped the next morning to clean up debris from the streets.
    In the following days many people turned themselves in to the police. Some not entirely willingly. Many had been "outed" on the social media by friends and acquaintances. While some were summarily fired by their employers, who were more concerned with the image of their businesses than with legalities.
    Many questions have been asked about the role of the social media in the Vancouver riots. In total, more than one million photos and video clips were provided to the police. Many of these were posted immediately in real time. They are publicly available, and--what is more crucial--can never be deleted. Some have called this vigilante justice.
    What the police and the courts will do with all this evidence still remains to be seen. Whether all of it is admissible is something that only the judicial system can determine. But there is an alternative way of resolving these issues.
    In my opinion, many of those who perpetrated these crimes probably should not be sent to jail, except perhaps one or two ringleaders, if indeed there were any. Most of the rioters admit that they were caught up by the events of the evening. They cast reason aside, and did things that they otherwise would not have done.
    This was the thesis of many speakers on a CBC radio program this morning, who told stories about what had happened to them when they were younger. They admitted that they too on occasion had been caught up in the heat of the moment and had done things they later regretted.
    How should society respond? Throw all these people in jail? No, a much better way to deal with them is by means of restorative justice.
    Restorative justice is an alternative to the dominant adversarial legal system, which is punitive in nature. The latter is concerned especially with legal issues, while the former tries to restore relationships between the parties involved. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of both the victim and the offender.
    Victims play an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to repair the damage they have done, by apologizing, returning stolen goods, making payment, or doing community service. It assumes that a crime or wrongdoing is an offence against an individual or the community rather than the state.
    Restorative justice is better able to resolve the many issues raised by the Vancouver riots. Rather than addressing the legal questions, it is concerned with the needs of the victims, such as payment for damages, as well as the needs of the offenders, who in many cases have already been shamed and will not be well served by jail time.
    Restorative justice is increasingly being considered in many jurisdictions as an alternative to the current system. We will see how the city of Vancouver in the near future handles the cases posed by these young kids. It may set an important precedent.

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