At the witching hour, a group of 15- and 16-year-olds silently crawled out of their beds and snuck out of their homes to meet up on the streets.
During the months of March and April – and always during the middle of the night – the group of six to seven boys texted messages to each other on cell phones to co-ordinate their efforts to target unlocked vehicles in the Willow Point area.
“There were two rashes (of thefts from vehicles) in two months. It was a real spike,” says Campbell River RCMP Staff Sgt. Troy Beauregard.
Typically working in groups of two or three, the boys cruised the streets from about 12:30-4 a.m., specifically looking for unlocked vehicles that contained valuables.
They stole money, electronics, iPods and sunglasses, but curiously, they stayed away from smart phones because they thought they could be electronically tracked.
“They were working in concert with each other…a semi-organized little crime ring,” notes Beauregard.
As the thefts mounted, the Mounties ramped up their efforts to find the culprits. They followed up on tips and actually stopped some of the boys in the early morning hours as they walked the streets.
But with little hard evidence, police took the investigation to the next level: They visited their homes and spoke to the parents to let them know what their sons were up to in the wee hours.
“Parents sometimes say, ‘It’s not my kid’ – it’s a real eye-opening experience for parents,” says Beauregard.
It didn’t take much to break the code of silence and officers soon had a list of seven youths responsible for the rash of thefts.
However, instead of hauling them into court, all seven were directed to the Restorative Justice Program. It’s a program primarily designed for young, first-time offenders, and the purpose is to make them acknowledge their crimes, to face their victims, to make restitution, and to receive a second chance to do good with their lives.
“The philosophy of restorative justice is based on community healing. In other words, the community decides what is best for itself in terms of resolving certain criminal matters,” wrote RCMP Insp. Lyle Gelinas in his report to city council.
In many ways, going through restorative justice is harder on the young offender than going to court. The reward though is the offender receives no criminal record and they hopefully go away with a better understanding of how their misdeeds have such a harmful effect on so many people.
Recently, a three-and-a-half-hour restorative justice forum was held to deal with the seven youths. As part of their “sentence” they were asked to write letters of apology. The Mirror was also invited to interview the youths at the RCMP detachment.
Here are excerpts from the interviews with five of the boys (their names cannot be used):
Teen #1, age 16
“I got into trouble and I’m trying to make up for it. Now I’m paying the price and I have to make up for what we’ve stolen. I’m trying to send a message that we learned our lesson,” he says.
The tall and toned teen looks like he’s carrying the proverbial chip on his shoulder, but it’s clear he’s uncomfortable being interviewed and steadfastly refuses to even provide his first name, if only for the sake of familiarity.
The boy says some of the stolen items were returned, but the money was spent. He promises this is the end of his late-night stealing.
“I’m scared to get caught again,” he says.
Teen #2, age 15
The boy looks intimidated and meek. He says he was hanging out with a bad group of friends and willingly took part in the thefts.
“We were stealing stuff – anything valuable – we would just try the handles,” he says, explaining they never smashed out windows or jimmied open doors.
When the police arrived at his home, the truth quickly came out.
“When my parents found out they were pretty disappointed, but I told them straight up,” he says, as he wondered what would happen next. “I thought I was going to juvey (juvenile jail) or something like that.”
He’s now directing his energy in martial arts and spending more time with his family. The restorative justice forum was an eye-opening experience.
“The victims were pretty mad with what happened and I apologized to them,” he says.
Teen #3, age 15
The boy would tell his dad he was staying over at friends when he went out on the prowl which, for a while, was a thrill.
“We did it for money, to buy smokes, or we’d grab anything we could to trade for drugs,” he says. “Basically, it was an adrenalin rush…one time I got chased and I was so scared, but we got away and I was just so happy, my heart was pounding and I was shaking.”
The teen readily admits he still smokes marijuana, but says he’s working to earn his own money. The forum also affected him, hopefully for the good.
“It sucked seeing my mom cry. It was just bad, but it did help,” he says and then adds why stealing is wrong. “I could be hurting other people and I could also get hurt. It’s just not right.”
Teen #4, age 16
“I did it a couple of times…I affected a lot of people,” he says.
He was stopped on the street by police, but didn’t think it was a problem because they hadn’t committed any thefts. And then the officers came knocking on his door.
“It was a big shock when said they had evidence,” he recalls. “My parents were mad. They weren’t pleased at all. They grounded me for several weeks and gave me a lot of chores.”
He still hangs out with a couple of the same guys, but not others, and spends his free time outdoors, bike riding or indoors playing video games. The restorative justice forum seems to have made an impression on him.
“I didn’t realize how many people I offended and the significance of it,” he says. “It’s not a path I want to go down. When you get a criminal record, you’re pretty screwed for everything.”
Teen #5, age 16
Unlike the other four, this teen says he went out stealing just once and was caught. He gave in to peer pressure and did something wrong.
“My friends were going out and I followed them. I didn’t know what they were up to. They mentioned it, but I didn’t think they were serious,” he says. “One of them kept punching me in the arm and said the only way he’ll stop is if I hopped a car.”
So he did and was caught soon afterwards. The restorative justice forum seems to have had a profound impact on the teen.
“I was a little upset because my dad was crying and I have never seen him cry in my entire life.”
Privacy only goes so far
Last year, 52 restorative justice forums were held in Campbell River.
There were 70 in 2010.
The forums dealt with people who had committed theft, mischief, fraud, drug possession, possession of weapons, assault, obstructing police, break and enter, uttering threats, and harassment.
In addition to facing their victims and writing letters of apology, the perpetrators preformed volunteer community service and re-paid almost $6,000 in restitution to local schools, businesses and one victim.
“The community of Campbell River benefited from the Restorative Justice Program in many ways,” wrote RCMP Insp. Lyle Gelinas in his report to city council. “(They) are a cost effective way to resolve the harm caused by some offenders. In addition, the recidivism rate is low for offenders…”
RCMP Staff Sgt. Troy Beauregard supports the program, but notes that parents should take the first step and become more involved in their children’s lives.
He says it’s important to respect the kids’ privacy, but at the same time, parents need to look and listen to what is really going on.
“Parents need to know what their kids are doing,” he says. “Don’t let them hide behind closed doors…privacy only goes so far. Stuff like iPods are expensive; ask them where it came from. Sometimes you have to ask those hard questions and you need to be alert.”