Victims' advocate says more energy should be invested in restitution programs

Justice systems in the North should invest more energy in developing restitution processes that work, according to a leading Canadian victims’ advocate.

Irvin Waller, a professor at the University of Ottawa and the president of the International Organization for Victim Assistance, was a speaker at Justice for All: A Comparison of the Crime Victims’ Rights in the U.S. and Canada, put on by the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice section this morning.

“We know from the social science evidence that well-organized restorative justice, which includes restitution payments, not only increases victim satisfaction compared to the normal process, but secondly actually reduces recidivism,” Waller said. “There is a real opening here. It’s win-win all around for justice at times of austerity.”

Susan Chapman of Toronto’s Green & Chercover, said judges in Canada are reticent about granting restitution orders, in part because of the historical division between criminal and civil justice.

“There’s also the practical realty. If someone is getting four years in prison, they’re going to be hard-pressed to pay restitution,” Chapman said.

Waller cited changes to the French justice system, which give victims standing in criminal cases to seek restitution from the accused.

In Ontario, the victim surcharge applied to most criminal and provincial offences raises about $44 million a year in Ontario, but most of it comes from traffic violations, and tends to be spent on support services for victims, rather than
individual restitution.

Russell Butler, who runs the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Centre, says he has faced similar problems south of the border, where legislation enshrining restitution payments has been circumvented by plea bargains or ignored altogether in sentencing. He said at least partial restitution should be sought by siphoning money from offenders’ earnings when they’re released on parole.

“I’m all for all offenders paying for victim services, but if you have an individual that’s harmed, I think they need to be the first priority in terms of payments from offenders. Otherwise, the government is then revictimizing them by taking the money for itself rather than helping the person along,” Butler said.

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