For the better part of the last decade, Laura was a prolific thief, regularly dodging security and retail staff in various Greater Victoria malls.
But it wasn’t until Saanich police officers caught her red-handed earlier this year that the 19-year-old decided to begin changing her life.
“I had been stealing since I was 11,” says Laura, using a pseudonym to protect her identity. “It started as a means to live. I did it out of survival and then it became habit. That’s not an excuse, that’s how it felt. If I needed something, I had to get it and keep my substance-abusing mother from being abusive.”
Laura told her story to the Saanich News surrounded by supporters at SaanichPD this week as part of the nationwide Restorative Justice week, which wraps up Sunday.
Since her arrest, Laura has nearly completed the restorative justice program, a co-initiative run by the John Howard Society of Victoria and Saanich Police Department.
“I knew I’d get caught one day,” she says. “You’re not a good thief if you don’t think you’ll get caught.”
As she entered her teenage years, Laura became a skilled thief, she says, referring to her criminal life in the past tense.
“I see it now as perfect timing. I’d stolen from pretty much every store at Tillicum,” Laura says.
Still, Laura was frustrated at her treatment when she was arrested by three Saanich police officers. She was put in handcuffs and taken into custody while her friend, 18, was queried but eventually let go.
Through the restorative justice process, Laura came face to face with the arresting officers, where she learned what they were doing is normal, she says.
“It was jail time or the restorative justice program, but I (still) came into it with a mistaken perception of cops,“ she says. “The people I used to be around talked about the police as the enemy. You would hear bad stories about police and their abuse, how rough they are for no reason.”
The restorative justice process starts with a mediating case worker, in this case Nathalie Down of the John Howard Society. Down first gathers the offender (and/or victim) with the arresting police officer(s) for a round table discussion. A set of conditions for the offender are then agreed on. Once those conditions are met, the process is concluded.
In Laura’s case, it was the first time she’d been held accountable for her actions, a crucial element which leads to personal growth, self respect, respect for others and forgiving, Down says.
“I was caught at a store a few years ago, but there was no accountability. When my mom came to pick me up, she only laughed it off and said ‘You can’t get caught,’” Laura says.
There are a few requirements remaining for Laura before she completes the program. The main one is an upcoming session where she’ll present a lecture to police officers so they can gain insight into Laura’s situation and her mindset at the time of her crimes.
The other requirement is to meet with a mentor, which in Laura’s case is not a problem.
“I love hanging out with my mentor. It’s great,” she says.
Victims, too, play a key role in the restorative justice program. Nicole, a 40-year-old nurse, was assaulted in Saanich last January. She chose to have the assailant complete the restorative justice program rather than press charges.
“I chose it [restorative justice] because I didn’t want to see them repeat the behaviour that caused the assault,” Nicole said. “I wanted to see personal accountability and acknowledgement and a sense of retribution, to see them taking steps to correct the behaviour.”
It meant coming face to face with her attacker during the meet-up with police officers and Down, though victims can send a surrogate to read their statement or sit in the next room and listen, Down says.
Saanich police anti-graffiti manager Const. Mark Pamminger has worked with three different offenders to clean up graffiti around Saanich in other restorative justice cases this year,
“I wear plain clothes,” Pamminger says. “It’s on a first name basis and they sit in the front seat, not the back, so there’s no intimidation. The sessions start with me doing 90 per cent of the talking and end with them doing 90 per cent of the talking. The community sees them as the people who come to help out, not as offenders.”
DID YOU KNOW?
- Restorative justice deals with crime by promoting accountably, meaningful reparation, and addressing root causes of harmful behaviour.
- Based on aboriginal beliefs, the Saanich Police have used restorative justice for 12 years.