Justice in many forms
Rethinking the consequences of punishment

by Derek Neary
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 06/98) - Aboriginal justice is attracting interest from those unhappy with jail and other conventional methods of dealing with crime.

Sentencing circles, for example, are the inspiration for a recent RCMP initiative called family group conferencing.

RCMP Const. Anna Marie Mallard explained the concept last Monday at a corrections and justice forum sponsored by Corrections Canada and The John Howard Society.

Family group conferencing involves the offender accounting for his crime in front of victim, police and his family. Often, community service is done as reparation and an apology is offered.

The similarities to sentencing circles are striking, according to Eddie Kolausok, an intergovernmental affairs specialist, with the GNWT.

"This is not a new idea," he said. "In aboriginal justice, everyone's involved -- the victim, the offender and the families affected. My personal feeling is that we're going to be returning to a lot of the basic tenets and practices that we used to have."

The initiative is just one of a number of alternative measures that are being proposed in place of jail terms for those who commit non-violent crimes. The problem with the current penal system is that punishment is emphasized rather than reconciliation and healing, he said, adding that courts are slow and costly.

Bill Erasmus, chief of the Dene Nation, was in complete agreement.

"We realize putting people in jail is not the answer," Erasmus said. "The answers to the problems we have is right here at home."

Society is changing very quickly but many crimes are a variation of long-established crimes, he said. Therefore, he suggested, they can be remedied by traditional methods.

Part of the challenge is to alter the way we think about offenders.

"We label people," Erasmus said. "Some of us take pride in finding (fault) with someone else."

The community should be prepared to help offenders if they're working towards rehabilitation, he said, noting that accommodations and jobs are essential.

"They want to be part of society once they're out, but they don't know where to begin," he said.

Erasmus noted that sentencing circles are often considered more lenient, but "that's not always the case."

In the past, serious aboriginal offenders faced banishment or even death, according to Kolausok.

"That was the very last resort," he said. "In our society today, the justice system upholds the principle of personal safety on all accounts. This is a similar principle in aboriginal traditional societies."

Kolausok and Erasmus both profess that justice has to come from within individual communities.

Erasmus said it is wrong to try to mould others to conform with the way we see the world. Therefore, imposing sets of laws on people who don't believe in them "really doesn't make sense."

Equally, it is not right for an individual to try to invoke a set of laws from one community in another. If you chose to live in a particular area, you should abide by its laws, he said.

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