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Avoiding a record
Norman Wells justice committee diverting minor cases from the courts

Chris Puglia
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, February 1, 2014

When a bad judgment call lands a person in the justice system no one wins, which is the idea behind the revival of the Norman Wells Community Justice Committee.

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Sgt. Ryan Snodgrass: RCMP officer is looking forward to having a committee in town to deal with matters that don't necessarily have to go through the court. - NNSL file photo

Funded through the GNWT Department of Justice, the committees are designed to divert minor offenses away from the court system. The committee, in collaboration with affected members of the community, the offender and, whenever possible, the victim develop a restitution plan. Those who go through the committee instead of the courts also avoid a criminal record.

“Sometimes people make a bad decision and going through a courtroom is not the best outcome for them,” said Sgt. Ryan Snodgrass with the Norman Wells RCMP detachment. “I am looking forward to having a committee in town to deal with matters that don't necessarily have to go through the court.”

Prior to coming to Norman Wells, Snodgrass served as the restorative justice co-ordinator with G Division's head office in Yellowknife.

“I am a strong supporter of justice committees, he said. “I try to refer matters to a justice committee whenever it meets the criteria.”

Although not specifically for young offenders, Snodgrass said the committees can be very useful dealing with young people. Not only does it save them from a criminal record that could haunt them for the rest of their lives, it also provides a clearer perspective on how their actions affected their community.

Rachel Thorne, the community’s new community justice co-ordinator, agrees.

“The offender sees the far-reaching affects of what they've done,” she said. “In the cases of a small offense I think (the committee) is more effective. Especially in the case of youth it is more effective and a better option.

“You might be 14 years old and you might think it's a funny idea to go do some vandalism or get into some mischief. If you go to court and acquire a criminal record for that offence it's statistically proven that as soon as someone enters the criminal justice system they are far more likely to re-enter it.”

Thorne said the stigma of a criminal record can also contribute to repeat offences.

“It is a very different process right from the get go because in order to go through the process the offender has to admit guilt from the beginning,” she said. “That is actually quite good because when the person comes to the committee they are already prepared to be held accountable for what they've done.”

That accountability isn't just in the admission of guilt, but often the restitution plan will include activities that will see the offender helping the community.

“It's just empowering for the people of Norman Wells to get involved in this kind of thing and make these kinds of decisions,” said Thorne.

Crime prevention

While restorative justice is a significant part of the committee's role it is also responsible for crime prevention initiatives, an aspect Thorne is looking forward to.

Part of that will focus on youth.

“One of the things is to teach skills and empower youth to show them that they can be creative, or they can do things that are very positive and that automatically just discourages youth from feeling bored or feeling like they have to act out in a negative way,” Thorne said.

One example of a possible activity is the formation of a traditional beading group.

“Getting aboriginal youth involved in something that's traditional is always really healthy in the development of identity and self-realization. Even for non-aboriginal youth, developing a craft and learning a new skill or learning about another culture has the same effect,” Thorne said.

Other possible initiatives could include awareness weeks, community events, bringing speakers to the community.

“The options are endless. It's actually really exciting,” Thorne said.

Committee forming

The committee is in the beginning stages of its formation. Thorne held a community information night on Jan. 27 and has nine confirmed volunteers and said there is no limit to the number of people who can to get involved. Members are officially appointed by the GNWT which means some paper work is involved, including a biography and a criminal record check, said Thorne

However, she added that a criminal record would not necessarily make a person ineligible – depending on the type and severity of the offence.

“Some one might have committed a crime as a younger person and has come a long way and learned from that. The insight they could provide in a hearing could be invaluable,” she said.

The date for the first meeting has yet to be set, but is expected to be this month. That meeting will determine the frequency in which the committee will meet and select a chairperson.

Thorne also said members don't have to be involved in all aspects of the committee and instead can choose to focus on either crime prevention and planning or the diversion process.

Thorne, as co-ordinator, is responsible for budget creation and management, organizing meeting times and, submitting regular reports.

Norman Wells' committee is sponsored by the Town of Norman Wells.

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