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B.C. restorative justice program ‘transforms’ victim-offender relationships

A participant in Langley-based Community Justice Initiatives’ serious crime program — whose father was murdered — said it changed her life for the better. She’s not alone.

Carys Cragg, a child and youth care instructor at Douglas College.

David P. Ball / Metro Order this photo

Carys Cragg, a child and youth care instructor at Douglas College.

Five years ago, Vancouver resident Carys Cragg realized she only had a short window of time before facing her father’s murderer in his next parole hearing.

She decided to take control of her encounter with Sheldon Klatt — serving a second-degree murder sentence for killing her father, Calgary surgeon Dr. Geoffrey Cragg, in a botched house burglary in 1992.

“I knew I wanted to meet him on my own terms before I started to attend hearings,” she told Metro in an interview.

Cragg, now 35, is a child and youth care practice instructor at Douglas College. In 2011, she entered the little-publicized world of restorative justice — and thanks to a B.C. non-profit organization, wrote letters to the offender and eventually even met him face-to-face in an Alberta prison.

She’d heard about restorative justice, but assumed like many people it was restricted to “petty crimes” such as theft or vandalism.

“I heard that you don't do restorative justice when it's a serious crime,” she recalled. “In fact, it's actually the opposite.”

Cragg is far from alone in holding what she realized were “misconceptions” about restorative justice.

In B.C., more than a thousand people have participated in the serious crime program run by the Langley-based Community Justice Initiatives Association, for “every conceivable kind of crime” involving federal incarceration of more than two years.

“Restorative justice takes a much wider view of crime and conflict,” explained executive director Dave Gustafson, who is an adjunct criminology professor at Simon Fraser University. “It starts with questions about who’s been harmed.

"It’s harm-based, rather than being narrowly focused on what laws have been broken, who broke them and what punishment they deserved — the questions generally addressed by the criminal justice system.”

The three-decade-old organization’s approach offers a variety of tools, at the choosing of victims of crime, that attempt to create circumstances “in which there’s the greatest likelihood of transformational change,” Gustafson said — in hopes of helping victims heal, and to help offenders take “full responsibility for what they’ve done” and develop empathy, he said.

“Our statistics would indicate that does indeed happen … Both victims and offenders participating in our serious crime program were unanimously supportive of it, saying it really does create a healing mechanism for them.”

Cragg came to understand that Klatt had never had a positive role model like her father was to her, and that his experiences with foster care and family mental illness had denied him a loving upbringing.

“It’s a reflection of our society that we currently are more comfortable with seeing a victim in pain and angry, and an offender as a monster,” she said. “It lets us all off the hook when we think of victims and offenders this way, about our responsibility to care for people.

“My father died because a young man was given some of the worst circumstances we can imagine … So I'm not surprised that when he turned 23, he walked into my house wanting to steal something … to pay off drug debts just to get through the next couple days.”

Cragg looks back on her experience with the program as the “best decision” of her life — and the moment she left her Alberta prison encounter as a turning point.

“I felt a confidence that was totally and utterly ripped away from me when I was 11 enter back into me,” she said. “I have never felt so free in my entire life — free of the sentence I feel was imposed on me as an 11-year-old girl.”

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