Senate Bill Proposes Improvements to Criminal Justice in Line with ARPA Recommendations
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The issue of restorative justice is one that ARPA Canada has weighed in on over the past couple years, particularly as it has come up for discussion in both the House of Commons and the Senate. ARPA published an updated policy report on restorative justice in the summer of 2022, as well as making separate committee submissions in June 2021 and April 2022. Restorative justice encompasses a variety of aspects, but it ultimately refers to a comprehensive vision of the justice system. It promotes accountability for the offender, participation from victims, and community engagement in rebuilding the community after a crime has been committed.
It is exciting to see increased interest in this topic and efforts to improve Canada’s criminal justice system. The most recent development is a bill introduced by Quebec Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu on May 17. Throughout his time in the Senate, Senator Boisvenu has been focused on how the criminal justice system can be improved for victims of crime. Bill S-265, titled the Federal Ombudsperson for Victims of Crime Act, seeks to contribute to such improvements with some small amendments.
What Does Bill S-265 Do?
The primary focus of the Bill, as the title suggests, is to lay out various responsibilities for the Ombudsperson for Victims of Crime. Ombudspersons (ombudspeople? Sometimes still called ombudsmen, which seems easier in the plural form, but besides the point for our purposes here) are fairly common both federally and provincially, with at least 15 positions at the federal level. According to the Ontario Ombudsman (in this case ombudsman, not ombudsperson), the word is Swedish, meaning “citizen’s representative.” It refers to an “independent official who investigates complaints from the public about problems in government administration.”
The Office of the Federal Ombudsperson for Victims of Crime has existed since 2007 as an adviser to the Minister of Justice. Bill S-265 lays out various responsibilities and functions for the Ombudsperson. For example, the Ombudsperson will provide support and assistance to victims of crime and their families by facilitating access to services and programs, reviewing complaints, and implementing education and information programs for authorities within the criminal justice system.
Bill S-265 would require the Minister of Justice to develop training for authorities in the criminal justice system regarding the rights of victims. Recommendation #1 in ARPA Canada’s policy report on restorative justice states, “All levels of government should require actors within the criminal justice system … to have an in-depth understanding of restorative justice and be prepared to give the option to offenders.” While this recommendation focuses on offenders, restorative justice for victims is also an important component for the criminal justice system.
One important element of restorative justice which is not commonly used in Canada is restitution. Restitution was a common punishment in the Old Testament, particularly for crimes where property had been taken, destroyed, or damaged by the commission of a crime. Restitution helps victims and offenders to make amends, where appropriate. However, restitution orders in Canada are rare, with just 2.41% of all guilty verdicts including restitution orders in 2017-2018. The educational component mentioned above may help increase the use of restitution as a punishment for offenders.
Currently, the law states that “Every victim has the right to have the court consider making a restitution order against the offender.” Bill S-265 would give victims the right to obtain reparations for harm done, including the court considering a restitution order against the offender, as well as access to restorative justice programs. Additionally, if a restitution order is made, the victim can obtain assistance to have that order entered and enforced.
This bill also focuses on the right to access restorative justice programs. While offenders benefit from restorative justice programs, victims often do as well, with evidence showing that participation in a restorative justice program allows them to feel safer and helps vengeful feelings to subside. As mentioned in Recommendation #5 of ARPA Canada’s policy report on restorative justice, faith-based organizations and community organizations can play a vital role in providing effective restorative justice programs. With a focus on reparation for crimes and reconciliation between victims and offenders, communities can be strengthened and care for victims of crime improved.
Other changes Bill S-265 would implement are with regards to victims of crime accessing information. Currently, victims have the right to request information about various services and programs, the outcome of investigations, or how to file a complaint. Bill S-265 would seek to ensure victims automatically receive this information without having to request it to ensure they know what options are available to them.
Good small steps
While none of these changes are likely to have a huge impact on the criminal justice system, they focus in the right direction, helping place further emphasis on restorative justice, restitution, training, and information about community-focused options. In the shadow of other big, impactful changes, it can be easy to miss some of the smaller positive changes that our representatives work to bring into effect. Stay tuned for any further developments on Bill S-265.