Last fall, Mennonite Central Committee urged constituents to express concern to their MPs over the punitive focus of the proposed Bill C-10, and its lack of new initiatives for crime prevention or rehabilitation strategies.
Called the “Safe Streets and Communities Act,” this “omnibus” federal crime bill packages nine pieces of previous legislation into one, which, if passed, will result in amendments to six existing laws and the creation of one new one. Instead of building communities, the bill focuses on punishing offenders with longer and mandatory prison sentences, greater financial penalties, and creates more barriers to ex-offender reintegration into society.
Having campaigned successfully on a “tough on crime” stance last spring, the government is committed to passing the bill within 100 sitting days of the new Parliament (by the end of March).
Victims’ Voice founder Wilma Derksen addressed the House of Commons standing committee on justice and human rights, Nov. 3, questioning the priorities of the bill: “I wonder if we can afford to focus so many of our scarce resources on mopping up the past that there are only crumbs left for the living who are struggling to find hope for the future.” (After Derksen’s 13-year-old daughter was murdered in 1984, she founded the organization that supports and advocates for victims of crime.)
MCC has worked in restorative justice for years, where Mennonites have been at the ground floor of innovative programs like CoSA (Circles of Support and Accountability for released sex offenders) and VORP (Victim Offender Reconciliation Program). “These initiatives have been recognized by the government as pioneering and worthy of greater support,” says MCC Canada Ottawa office director Paul Heidebrecht.
The MB Herald spoke with Heidebrecht and MCC Saskatchewan restorative justice coordinator Stephen Siemens about Bill C-10 and MCC’s work in restorative justice.
Why is Mennonite Central Committee engaging the government on this “omnibus” crime bill?Paul: We frame the advocacy work MCC does in Ottawa around the expression of loving our neighbour as witness to government. An important part of our calling as followers of Jesus is bearing witness for those who don’t have access to power.
Do our neighbours include those who would or have harmed us?Stephen: I frame restorative justice around discipleship and public safety. We’re people redeemed by the Lord; if we have the compassion and courage, the grace and tenacity to take Jesus’ example seriously, shouldn’t that extend into the community? Then God’s creative trademark can be felt – order out of chaos, healing out of pain, restoration out of brokenness, incarnation not incarceration. One of the best things to hear when someone has been out [of prison] for a while is “I can’t believe I used to do that stuff; I can never do that now because of what I have” – that is, friendship and hope.
This witness is not a prison abolition voice. But, for the majority, there are more creative things to do with offenders [than simply incarceration].
You’re saying relationships can prevent crime?
Stephen: CoSA is one example. We have about 150 circles across Canada dealing with “the worst of the worst.” Many offenders get back on their feet and live in the community with something like 83 percent reduction in recidivism. One of the largest stakeholders in a public safety funding project for CoSA, MCC is halfway through a 5-year plan grant from the federal government.
In our provincial remand centres, $75–80 thousand dollars per year to house an offender is the cheapest. With sexual offenders, we’re talking about $150 thousand per year to maybe $200–250 in serious cases. Over 10 years, that’s 2.5 million dollars – and that’s the cost to run all of CoSA for one year.
How does restorative justice fit into our priority of reaching Canada for Christ?
Stephen: I like to juxtapose incarnate and incarcerate. Love drives out fear; the gospel is restoration and new beginnings – why not have this invigorating discipleship woven into the fabric of the local congregation and replicated in the wider world, especially where pain and despair are the most obvious? The Matthew 18 process of leading the fallen in our churches to repentance is an exhausting process, but it leaves a pattern of how to interact with the world.
“Tough on crime” is a decades-old semantic smoke screen; deterrence doesn’t work when you have nothing to live for, and are struggling with mental illness, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, etc. When I only cared about myself and harming other people, it took someone speaking into my life, hearing what God has in store for me that led me to repentance. Then I wanted to be accountable to somebody.
So, restorative justice is a platform to share the gospel?
Stephen: The gospel is invitational: there is purpose for your life, there is hope for your addictions, there are new ways to make things right.
Paul: As Christians, we should be at the forefront of restorative justice work because we believe transformation of lives is possible.
Surely restorative justice and imprisonment are not mutually exclusive. The legal system (I hesitate to call it the justice system) already is at pains to use very other possible response than imprisonment for those convicted of crimes. There is widespread public opinion that the system and judges are already too lenient with the result that (a) there is much injustice because the punishment does not fit the crime and (b) the public is at risk because dangerous and repeat offenders are on the loose.
Politicians are naturally responsive to issues that have strong public support. I am of the view that until we who advocate alternatives to more imprisonment are so successful in implementing those alternatives that pubic fear is reduced, the current legislative trend will continue.