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Even those who have ‘done horrendous things’ can be rehabilitated, says expert

“Not very many people are irretrievable,” says at-risk youth worker.

THE BATTLEFORDS - People – including street gang members - who have “done horrendous things” can turn their lives around, according to Rick Kelly, from Just Us: A Centre for Restorative Practices.

A justice system that focuses on accountability and responsibility rather than punishment would be more effective in rehabilitating offenders, asserts Kelly.

“Not very many people are irretrievable.”

A restorative approach provides an opportunity for those who have caused harm to develop an insight into their behaviour, he said, adding that many youth who haven’t been taken care of haven’t developed the ability to have empathy for others.

“By sitting with others in a restorative process they are able to start to see the impacts they have on other people.”

He said when someone is given an opportunity to take responsibility for his actions, is held accountable, faces people and engages in reparative actions, he see things differently and develops empathy.

This isn’t possible in Canada’s current punitive justice system, he said.

“There is no process whatsoever to repair things. If you are going into something where someone is deciding your guilt or your innocence and you work with lawyers that tell you ‘don’t plead guilty,’ which means don’t take responsibility, then (the accused) is already in a position not to speak truthfully.”

Gang involvement

In spite of the province’s efforts to reduce gang activity, they are gaining a stronger foothold in Saskatchewan, according to Stan Tu’Inkuafe from STR8 UP, a Saskatoon-based non-profit that helps gang members leave the lifestyle.

STR8 UP is working with Indigenous gang members as young as eight and Tu’Inkuafe said there aren’t adequate programs in place for youth wanting to get out.

According to the Provincial Gang Strategy Forum held in Saskatoon in 2018, Saskatchewan’s Indigenous peoples are still impacted by colonization and the inter-generational trauma associated with racism. The emerging generations of Indigenous youth are still dealing with the trauma — the residual effects of the Indian residential school era. This continues the cycle of suicide, addictions and now gang activity.

Kelly said dealing with the gang problem requires a village response including family, community and schools.

“You might get an interesting program but it works in isolation.”

In Kelly’s work with at-risk youth in Ontario, he utilizes Roca’s four-year high-risk intervention model out of the U.S., which successfully works with high-risk youth facing challenges such as gang involvement.

The four key components of the Roca model are relentless outreach, transformational relationships, stage based programming, and working with engaged institutions such as police, probation officers, municipalities, community agencies, private businesses, and foundations.

Racism within the system

Racism is prevalent and virulent in Saskatchewan, said Kelly.

“We need to look at how deeply rooted that sort of white supremacy and racism is and how it really infects the (justice) system.”

He said the “Colonial way” is almost like an old boys club.

“That’s where it needs scrutiny by the public so people can see what is going on.”

Kim Beaudin, national vice-chief for the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said racism stems directly from the Indian Act when Indigenous people needed passes to leave the reserve.

“Those kinds of things led to residential schools and now we are dealing with the massive amount of Indigenous people in foster care and the impact of the 60s scoop.”

Anti-racism training within the justice system would just be a Band-Aid solution, said Beaudin.

“I believe it has to do with the education system and who gets hired and what they know about Indigenous people, and it’s not a lot.”

Beaudin said a lot of the responsibility for Indigenous justice should be taken out of the hands of the provincial government and given directly to Indigenous people.

“Let us run the show, let us address our own people.”

With Indigenous incarceration rates at an all time high, Beaudin said clearly the current system is failing.

“It’s just not working. If it was working you would see the (incarceration) numbers start to go down.”

Every Indigenous person coming before the court should have the opportunity to have a Gladue report instead of just a Pre Sentence Report (PSR), said Beaudin. He said if a bureaucrat, a government official or probation officer doing a PSR doesn’t like the offender they are in trouble.

“If they don’t like you and don’t get along with you they will write every negative thing they can get together.”

Beaudin said about eight months before an inmate is released from prison a healing circle should be created to discuss what life after prison will look like.

Restorative justice not a new concept

Before Canada was colonized, its Indigenous people had an effective restorative justice system, which emphasized healing the harm and rehabilitating the offender to avoid future harm.

A healing circle included the offender, elders and often the victim. The offence, and how it affected the victim, the community and the relationship between these and the offender was discussed. This is often a more difficult – but successful - process for an offender than just serving a prison sentence.

The healing circle also focused on the underlying causes of why a person offended.

Kelly, a trained youth worker, said we don’t know the underlying trauma or attachment disruptions that caused someone to offend. 

“Their behaviours are formed around needs that haven’t been met. If you address the need then the behaviour will resolve on its own.”

Sometimes it takes years to work with youth and transition them out of gangs, said Kelly. He pointed to Dr. Adam Ellis, a former Toronto street gang member.

“He grew up in a life of violence and adopted an armour as a way of coping but he found a way out.”

In 2019 Ellis spoke before the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. He told the Senate committee that he grew up in a subculture of violence and was first exposed to street warfare at the age of six and became a street gang member when he was 16. By the time he was 19 he lost many close to him as a result of homicide, suicide and incarceration.

“Today, I have miraculously survived my community, the justice system that tried to silence my pain, and the broader society that only viewed me as a failure,” said Ellis.

Kelly said it was the power of relationships that broke down Ellis’ armour.

The tough on crime approach doesn’t work, said Kelly.

“That has nothing to do with truth or understanding the impacts of intergenerational trauma and the forms of genocide that were inflicted on First Nations people. We seem to have a hard time accepting that.”