Community justice explored
Regional workshop delves into alternative justice system

by Ralph Plath
Northern News Services

FORT SIMPSON (Mar 20/97) - Nearly everyone involved in community justice agrees that circle sentencing and other forms of alternative justice are better than the regular court system.

A three-day regional workshop in Fort Simpson last week brought out those sentiments from RCMP officers, court workers and researchers.

"If justice committees do their work you won't need jails," said Nick Sibbeston, chairperson of the workshop and former regional community justice specialist. "It's a healing process. That's why it's so valuable."

Community justice is a relatively new concept in Canada. The Yukon was the first jurisdiction to introduce the system, which revolves around circle sentencing, a process in which a group of community members hear an accused person's case and decide how the person should be dealt with.

This system differs from the Canadian justice system in that the accused has a chance to tell why they committed the crime, and victims are also given a chance to speak.

The whole process focuses on healing the accused and getting him or her back on the right track. For many accused people, explaining their actions in front of a group of community members is more frightening than the conventional court system.

"Community policing is the way to go," said Fort Simpson RCMP Sgt. Dean Taylor. "Just about every detachment in this corner of the North thinks it's great."

So far, only Fort Simpson and Wrigley have organized justice committees and are hearing cases.

Since a justice committee was formed in Fort Simpson two years ago, about 20 cases ranging from mischief to spousal assault and theft have been heard through circle sentencing.

"We've never had a repeat offender," said community justice worker Stella Gargan. "We keep trying to improve it. Every case is unique. It's time-consuming and really emotional."

Wrigley's community justice worker, Stella Pellissey, said her community decided to form a justice committee to deal with local issues and healing cases.

"We felt the community has a unique opportunity to get involved in the justice system," she said. "It seems to be very beneficial."

With the Yellowknife Correctional Centre operating well above capacity and the chance to save money in the long run through community justice, the NWT Department of Justice is hoping other communities will jump on the bandwagon.

It has pledged to hire a regional community justice specialist or get regional community justice workers to conduct workshops on creating a committee in communities which are interested.

"It seems worthwhile to get going in some way," said Nora Sanders, assistant deputy minister of the Department of Justice. "(The government) has to find ways to stop the barriers that exist in developing community justice initiatives. The question is, how do we define our role?"