Manitoba's centralized restorative justice centre has zeroed in on domestic violence, as it aims to divert more cases from criminal courts.
Probation orders would have been the criminal penalty for many of the individuals who are instead working with staff at the Winnipeg centre, which focuses on male and female domestic-violence offenders, according to documents released to the Free Press in response to an access-to-information request.
Individuals must admit responsibility to be eligible for restorative justice diversion. When they complete program requirements, their criminal charges are dropped.
Since most restorative justice centre employees are probation officers, the centre has been working to "slide the ruler" to get people involved in the programs they need sooner than if they went through criminal courts, the documents state.
In an interview, Shauna Appleyard, executive director of restorative justice and rehabilitation services for the community safety division of Manitoba Justice, said probation officers already have the expertise needed to work in restorative justice.
Since it opened in October 2017, the centre has been triaging cases police and Crown prosecutors recommend should be diverted out of the courts. Some are sent to organizations such as Onashowewin, the Salvation Army, and Mediation Services. Other cases are dealt with at the centre, which employs three probation officers, one community corrections worker and one manager.
"To increase capacity and also to focus on domestic violence, we realigned the probation officer skill set to it, so previously, probation caseloads in domestic violence would have been higher. We’ve been able to divert some and work with individuals sooner in the process," Appleyard said.
Data charting the progress the centre has made in its first year show 85 per cent of cases were successfully completed. From October 2018 to the end of December 2018, the successful-completion rate was about 51 per cent.
Statistics for 2019 haven't been tabulated. Neither has data that tracks how many people go on to commit crimes after completing restorative-justice programs. Recidivism rates are tracked on a two-year basis, Appleyard said.
Restorative justice is a main part of the province's plan to reduce Manitoba's incarceration rates, which remain high, especially among Indigenous people.
The provincial government's criminal-justice modernization strategy aims to increase the use of restorative justice, and about 5,000 cases were diverted to various programs over the past year. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Police Service lays criminal charges in more than 2,000 domestic violence incidents per year, according to its most recent annual report.
Appleyard said clients who go through the restorative justice centre generally learn about healthy relationships and communication skills, and have group sessions to keep each other accountable.
"We have an open-door policy after the case is closed, where people can come back and continue to ask questions and receive supports, linking them with additional community supports," she said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, June 13, 2019 at 4:47 PM CDT: Capitalizes Mediation Services