Article Detail

Conferencing a Serious Arson Case
Ronald Hunt, Police Services Board, Renfrew, Ontario

Posted 2000-08-12

(Some information may be fictionalized for confidentiality purposes)

PRESENTING CASE: serious case of arson

This 17 year old male (John) is charged with a serious case of arson. One evening after a party where there was drinking, he and two companions were smoking behind a local school. When they left, the wooden garbage container was smoldering either from matches or cigarette butts. The fire was discovered by the vice-principal and the volunteer fire department was called. The damage was $14,000. The father of this lad was one of the fire fighters called to the fire.

Early the next week, John tells his father of his involvement in the fire. The Police are called and statements taken. John is the only lad charged as he confesses to his part in the incident and the others deny involvement.

The Crown Attorney calls the facilitator to ask about a restorative justice conference for this incident. He states that the insurance company is inquiring if they have standing in the conference as a commercial victim. John's lawyer calls and wishes to be part of the restorative justice conference if possible.

Interviews with the family (father, mother and 14 year old sister), the investigating police officer, school principal, vice-principal, teaching aid worker, lawyer and insurance broker are held. It is decided to hold a conference in a local faith group location with 2 hosts who facilitate the setting and observe the process. The date is confirmed with all participants and the location.

RESTORATIVE JUSTICE CONFERENCE

The location for the conference is a local faith group location (church) with 2 hosts who facilitate the setting, (room, chairs, refreshments, and act as a "catcher" (CISM) for anyone who might leave the session.) 'Those present for the conference from left of the facilitator are: father. John, mother, lawyer, principal, teaching aid worker and vice-principal. The police officer does not show up.

The conference proceeds using the Real Justice Conference Script from the "New Handbook"'. The eight participants, including the facilitator, move through. a discussion of the incident for which John takes complete responsibility and describes his activities openly, He breaks down and cries at one point. Next the principal describes the horrendous work load that is thrown on her by the incident. It is several months before the impact of the fire is finally managed. Student's needs and reactions, fire adjusters, classroom changes and equipment loss are some of the issues. She is very supportive of the conference process and wants some clear resolutions and helpful results coming from the process.

Next , the teaching aid worker describes her concern for the reaction of students over the fire, their concern and loyalty for the school and teachers, fear and anxiety over the implications and consequences of the fire. She is particularly concerned about one younger male student, 13 years of age, who feels that the starting of the fire is a macho act and he is very impressed with the role of a fire-starter at a "hero". He speaks about what it would be like to emulate this kind of behaviour. This reaction on the part of the student particularly concerns the teaching aid worker.

The vice-principal is quiet upset by the incident. He begins by asking John what could have possibly been going through his head at the time the incident was happening. He shares his reactions and anxiety at discovering the fire and being part of the attempt to save valuable equipment from the fire, and adjusting to the post fire situation in the school. He is visibly upset at John and shows his annoyance.

The role of the facilitator is to clarify feelings, concerns and facts as well as to facilitate the flow of conversation between the participants using the Real Justice script. John is provided an opportunity to interact with each of the previous speakers and to finally make a closing statement to them by saying that he is deeply and truly sorry for his actions and is prepared to do what is necessary to make amends.

Next, John's father speaks to the conference. He describes his shock and disappointment that his son would have taken part in this incident. He shares the feelings and consequences of his son confessing involvement in the fire setting. The son has been grounded to home after school and has lost privileges. John's mother speaks of the family's quiet and private life having been shattered with the publicity of the fire in the small rural town. She speaks of her embarrassment and disappointment in her son's actions. She describes the initial moment she learned of her son's involvement by saying, "0 my God, not my son." The family then retreats into silence.

The facilitator next introduces the agreement phase with the question, "What would make this right by all the participators in this conference. After some discussion, 4 items are identified as agreements. John is asked at each item if he agrees with it and will perform the requirement. He agrees with each of the 4 items in the agreement.

The 4 items of the agreement are: 1. John will speak to a select group of students under the direction of the Principal, to explain his behaviour and consequences to the students. 2. John will listen to his parents regarding his behaviour and engage with them in conversation more often. 3. John will support a fund-raising program at the school for a piece of equipment damaged in the fire by raising $ 1,000. himself at his evening and weekend job at a local fast food restaurant. His mother will make sure he goes and is picked up after work as the work location Is in another town. 4. John agrees to participate in and successfully complete a juvenile's fire starter's prevention program sponsored by the fire department in another town. John agrees to complete all of the agreements in 7 months.

The restorative justice conference then concludes with refreshments and a supportive time of conversation and sharing among all the participants. It is a warm and supportive time for all present.

FOLLOW UP

The local Court Justice receives a copy of the RJ conference report from the Crown Attorney and remands the case until the agreement is completed. In five months time, the Crown Attorney is called before the Court Justice asked if the agreement is ready to be presented. The facilitator's inquiry with John concludes that the agreement is completed. The facilitator prepares a report for the Crown Attorney who presents the report to the Court. The agreement report becomes the completed conditions of John's case and the charges against him are dropped by the Crown Attorney.

One week before this resolution of John's case before the Court, John's 14 year old sister is charged with arson in the location of the town causing $1100 damages. The Crown Attorney is dismayed by this news and wishes to review the involvement of the restorative justice conference process.

SOME ISSUES FOR DISCUSSION

1. Crown Attorney and Court responses to the agreement.

2. Commercial victim's role (insurance broker) in the conference.

3. Victim follow-up.

4. Offender follow-up.

5. Other outcomes and their implications for conferencing.