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Tristan Cleveland is an urban planner who has also worked in Montreal, Guyana and Venezuela. Cleveland grew up in the south shore of Nova Scotia and has been an advocate for sustainable planning in Halifax since 2012.

Tristan Cleveland: I know first-hand, restorative justice works

Metro's columnist says the program didn't just punish him, it made him better.

Metro file

Good on Justice Minister Diana Whalen for extending restorative justice to adults. I know first hand: it’s a much-needed alternative to the courts.

My criminal career got off to a bad start. A friend and I were bored one evening in Chester and so we decided to see if we could get a free Coke out of a pop machine. Our attempts to shake the machine were a bit too enthusiastic (we bodychecked it at a full run) and to our surprise, it broke.

Here is some good advice I guess we hadn’t heard: if you are going to commit a crime, do not commit it under a police station window. Arrested in 60 seconds.

It sucks to be young and feel like you’ve screwed up. It sucks more when it is going to lead to a criminal record. Punishing offenders is something the law has to do, but stigmatising kids like us with the status of “law-breakers” would have done nothing to get us doing better things with our time.

We never saw the inside of a courtroom, however, thanks to restorative justice.

Don’t mistake it for an easy ride. We had to sit down in a room with the vending-machine owner, facilitators, the police and our parents. The owner told us what it feels like to work hard everyday on a business only to wake up and find out someone had attacked it. I had to watch my mother listen to that story.

But with no gavel, we were all able to agree on a suitable punishment and move on. My friend and I were tasked with giving back: 25 hours of helping the tourist bureau get ready for the summer season.

And that’s where a funny thing happened. A journalist for the local paper had heard we were helping out and came by to do a feel-good story. She asked me why I was volunteering and I told her, “Ah, well, it’s kinda community service.” She responded, “Yes, of course it’s a service to the community.”

The next day, a picture of my friend and me smiling and giving the thumbs up while we painted the wall was page two of the paper. Far from little criminals, we were in the news as upstanding little citizens.

My favourite part is that the folks at restorative justice said we should use the newspaper clipping to help us get our next job. And that’s the thing about restorative justice: it does more than just punish. It helps us be better.

But let’s remember: having people assume I’m a great kid even after I break the law is exactly what white privilege looks like. We need restorative justice. We also need to extend that same generosity to people who don’t enjoy the automatic assumption that they’re not criminals. Let’s use restorative justice to work on getting better at that too.