This is the first of three articles on restorative justice in Chilliwack. Check the Times next week for the second part of this series.
It was going to be easy, or so Tony was told.
Just walk into the grocery store, and grab a pair of inflatable pool floats. Maybe grab a pump-you don't want to have to blow the floats up by yourself. Take them to the bathroom. Stash the boxes in your backpack. Walk out the store.
And now here he was, accosted by a security guard, dragged back into the store, and waiting in a dark room for a police officer to come take him to his parents.
Who knows where the other kid went to-the friend of a friend who, as they prepared to catch the bus to Cultus Lake, encouraged him to steal the pool floats. All Tony (the Times has changed his name) knew was that his father would be furious.
Grew up knowing the rules
Like most 17-year-old teenagers, Tony had been in trouble before- but it was nothing compared to this. Back in seventh grade he had been caught lighting firecrackers and suspended from school.
But it was nothing like this. Not only were the police involved, and the grocery store could opt to press charges, but his own father was saying that Tony might deserve to end up in court.
Tony's mother was stunned. "I was mortified," she says now, six-odd months later. "I couldn't believe that [Tony] would have done that.
"We've always promoted that that sort of thing is wrong.
"I grew up very religiously," she said. "You don't lie, you don't steal, you just don't do that sort of thing."
Needless to say, Tony was grounded. But with the RCMP involved, it wouldn't be just Tony's parents doling out the punishment.
That's why, despite his father's initial throw-the-book-at-him fury, the family was pleased when the RCMP officer who handled Tony's case referred the teen not to the criminal courts but rather to the Chilliwack Restorative Justice Society.
Restorative Justice is an "alternative justice system" that emphasizes community service, education and, if possible reconciliation between offenders and victims. It's a program created, essentially, for offenders just like Tony.
Told he would be spared criminal charges if he entered the program, Tony met with Restorative Justice volunteers, who went to work trying to understand why an honours student would commit a crime just to get a pool float.
"I've learnt a lot from it," he said. If he could go back in time and speak to himself just before he put those pool floats in his back pack, Tony said he'd: "Give myself a smack and be like, 'Smarten up.'"
The process was illuminating for all sides, and Tony was "sentenced" to five hours of labour at the West Coast Kart Club's Greg Moore Raceway. He also wrote a letter of apology to the grocery store manager that explained his shift in thinking since the incident.
After apologizing, Tony writes that his actions have caused humiliation and forced him to endure the judgment of his parents. He pledges to never try to steal again. And he reveals a deeper understanding of the economics of shoplifting, noting that theft forces stores to raise prices to compensate for their losses.
He told the Times that writing the letter made him consider the broader effect of his actions when he shoplifted.
"They have to take measures," he said. "Usually they have to hire more secret shoppers or have to put in video cameras here and there and that all costs money."
That thinking came through in the letter, in which he wrote: "I believe my stealing affected the community because they have to pay those higher prices."
Mother grateful there was another way
The Restorative Justice process earned high marks from Tony and his mother, and not just because it eschewed the criminal justice system.
Tony said he felt like the volunteers understood and liked him, and that they were trying to learn about what prompted him to commit a spur-of-the-moment crime.
"I feel it's really good because they do help kids get through that and get past it," Tony said. "It's better to have someone to talk to who understands what you're going through and what's going on than someone who doesn't know and is just judging you."
And his mother is grateful that there was a formal way for his son to face consequences, but not be saddled with a criminal record. Tony clearly knew he was wrong. He'd heard it over and over again. So his mother was pleased to see the Restorative Justice volunteers focus on getting Tony to acknowledge the consequences of his actions, and then move on.
"Rather than telling [Tony] how wrong he was, they were trying to help him," she said.
And in the end, Tony's mother says that, by getting caught stealing, her son has learned a valuable lesson that should last him the rest of his life.
"It's one thing as parents to tell him it's wrong to steal, but for him-I mean, I still wish he hadn't have done it-to see what happens when you do steal and how it not only affects you but all the people around you . . . even though it seems weird to say it, it was a good experience."
A DIFFERENT KIND OF JUSTICE
Jan. 8 - Redemption
Jan. 15 - Success
Jan. 22 - Challenges