For many of us, the only time we've seen the inside of a courtroom is on TV. We’re fascinated by TV crime dramas and bingeing true crime shows on Netflix. Watching lawyers debate a defendant's case makes for a great story. But when the cases are real, and the outcomes have lasting impacts, the criminal justice system doesn't always work the way we think it does.

Here in Waterloo Region, several organizations work with the courts and lawyers to bring innovative solutions to criminal justice proceedings. 

In the truest spirit of the Tech for Good movement, employees from Magnet Forensics launched the Auxtera Project last month. The project makes Magnet Forensics’ digital forensics technology available to non-profits, charities and public sector organizations to give more people access to this critical technology. Like DNA evidence, digital evidence is quickly becoming an area where limited or costly access to technology puts both victims and defendants at a disadvantage. 

The Auxtera Projects builds upon Magnet Forensics’ commitment to protecting the innocent. “We believe that everyone, regardless of age, gender, race or financial well-being, should have equal access to justice,” said Jad Saliba, Magnet Forensics founder and Chief Technology Officer. “Digital investigations haven’t just played a crucial role in putting our worst criminals behind bars. They’ve helped rescue victims and exonerate innocent people of crimes they didn’t commit. Without access to it, children, racial and ethnic minorities and the financially disadvantaged only become more vulnerable.”

While the Auxtera Project is levelling the playing field for access to technology, another local organization has been working to change the way we approach the idea of punishment, with the use of restorative justice.

The concept of restorative justice has a long history with First Nations people across Canada. Today, for certain types of cases, restorative justice programs work to replace the traditional jail sentence with reconciliation meetings between the victim and perpetrator of a crime. The goal is for the perpetrator to hear first-hand how the crime impacted the victim, their families and their sense of safety and well-being. 

Today’s restorative justice movement has roots in Waterloo Region, with an organization called Community Justice Initiatives. The agency is credited with being the first one dedicated to restorative justice and a catalyst for what is now a global movement. For more than 40 years, Community Justice Initiatives has made restorative justice a more widely used tool of the courts to replace traditional jail sentences.

The movement started with a case in Elmira, Ont. in 1974. Two young men went on an alcohol-fuelled vandalism spree through the rural community north of Waterloo. By the end of the evening, they had committed 22 acts of vandalism – smashing windows, slashing tires, downing stop signs and more. They even knocked over a boat in one victim’s yard.

After they were apprehended, the duo were assigned a court officer named Mark Yantzi, “a young guy who, even though he was fairly young and inexperienced, knew exactly what was going to happen,” said Chris Cowie, Executive Director of Community Justice Initiatives. “These guys would go before the judge, they would end up in jail, they would come out in worse condition than what they went in because our jails don’t do anything except make people worse.”

As part of the court proceeding, the officer had put together a pre-sentencing report about the defendant’s history used to inform sentencing decisions. He added a small note saying he thought there could be some therapeutic value in these young men meeting with the victims of their crimes. “It was kind of shocking to everyone when this judge, who was kind of a tough guy, actually showed some interest in that. And then ultimately said, ‘Yeah, I think you should go ahead and do that.’”

Yantzi, the “young, inexperienced court officer” would go on to become a Kitchener and Region of Waterloo councillor for over 22 years and has worked in the Restorative Opportunities program of Correctional Services Canada for the last 18 years.

After the judge accepted Yantzi’s suggestion, the two defendants were driven to Elmira, where they knocked on the doors of the victims’ homes and apologized for what they did.

“For the first time, these guys actually understood the true impact of what they had done. I worked with young offenders for many years and I can tell you that in the absence of actually coming face to face with the victim, most young people see the impact of their crime purely in terms of the financial value of something – so it was a shock to these guys when people said, ‘Look at us, we’re not poor, we’re able to fix the windows. But my wife and kids had to go and stay at her sister’s house for a couple of weeks because we were afraid that you’d come back.’

“So it’s this disruption of your own physical safety and the way that you feel violated that young people generally don’t get until they hear it directly from a victim,” Cowie said.

The process is different now, but the goal is the same – create another way to imagine justice. According to Cowie, our current system is designed to be retributive. “Justice often times is synonymous with punishment,” he said. “The only thing that serves someone justice is if the person who has done something wrong is delivered a sentence by a third party, and they’re somehow punished. What we know is that punishment does not correct behaviour.”

Instead, jail time often leads to more repeat offenders, Cowie said. For many, time in jail is used to learn how not to get caught the next time. For those who do come out with a goal to not involve themselves in crime again, they still carry a feeling of anger towards the system, which produces other problems down the line.

Jail sentences don’t deliver a long-term sense of justice or safety for victims either. “It’s a very momentary kind of satisfaction to think that somebody who harmed you is actually now going to be harmed themselves,” Cowie said. “But people are still left with the trauma and the impact of those things and, over time, realize that their needs have not really been met.”

Instead of focusing on the law that was broken and the way the perpetrator will be punished, restorative justice asks who was harmed, how they were hurt, and how the perpetrator will make redress in a way that delivers resolution.

Cowie gave an example of a home break-in. There are potential monetary costs – broken windows or doors and stolen items. But there’s also a sense of being violated in a place you need to feel safe. “In these cases, yes, the person did smash a window and it cost a certain amount of money, so they’d have to pay that back. But more important than that, you feel less safe in your home now. What is it going to take to restore some of that sense of safety?”

Restorative justice is gaining wider acceptance and usage, but government funding has been hard to come by. Cowie said it’s hard for politicians to get elected by saying they’ll put fewer people in jail. “We just sort of accept the idea that prison is actually doing something of some value when it really isn’t,” said Cowie. “It produces the exact opposite results than what we would want. Look at the absolute failure of mass incarceration in the U.S. and the increasing knowledge that mass incarceration had more to do with racism than it has to do with justice.” 

Seeing the real change that happens with restorative justice is what drives Cowie and the Community Justice Initiatives team. “I’ve watched it happen, it’s not just theory, it actually brings about a heartfelt kind of change in someone to not want to do those things in the future. There’s an understanding that they’ve actually harmed a real human being.”

Community Justice Initiatives is a nonprofit and offers multiple opportunities for volunteers to get involved. “It’s not a typical volunteer opportunity, we’re not asking people to come in and sweep the floors and drive someone somewhere,” said Cowie. “You do some serious training and some very meaningful kind of work.” To learn more about Community Justice Initiatives and opportunities to get involved, visit

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While we’re finding new ways to avoid jury duty, I see and hear that...The KW Community Foundation has their second Do More Good Dialogue on Thursday, March 11 at 1 p.m. This month’s talk explores the intersectionality between affordable housing and gender. On Friday, March 12, celebrate the Irish Real Life Festival with Lost & Found Theatre presents: Private O’Flaherty, V.C. by George Bernard Shaw at 7 p.m. Femme Folks Fest presents The Black Out Forum on Sunday, March 13 at 6 p.m. The Black Out Forum is a conversation starring artists from the Black/Caribbean/African diasporas to speak candidly about the good, the bad and the ugly of being an artist in regions where they are not well represented.