Early in the morning of Dec. 2, 2015, Carolyn Stewart was caught on video surveillance breaking into the cash register at the Tall and Small Cafe in Antigonish, N.S.

She made off with about $1,000, but was quickly caught by police after café co-owner Meghan Peters and her husband posted footage of the break-in online.

Almost a year to the day, victim and offender will be working alongside each other next month, hosting a community supper together to mark their reconciliation.

It's a journey made possible by restorative justice, a program the Nova Scotia government said Monday it wants to expand in an effort to divert more criminals accused of minor crimes away from the overburdened court system.

'I got what I needed'

After Stewart was caught and charged, Peters said she really wanted to meet the woman face to face.

"We met and we spoke for a couple of hours and it was a very touching experience," Peters said. "I had so many questions: Why? How? And she answered them and I saw that she was very, very remorseful and that it was just a mistake and that people make mistakes.

"I got what I needed, which was answers."

Carolyn Stewart and Meghan Peters

Carolyn Stewart (left) broke into the Antigonish café owned by Meghan Peters (right). (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The case is just one example the province is using to justify expanding the restorative justice system for adults provincewide, starting next month.

Right now it's only available to young people across the province, and typically only available to adults in the Halifax region, Cape Breton Regional Municipality, and the municipalities of East Hants and Colchester.

'Court system is really backed up'

Restorative justice often involves offender and victim meeting face-to-face, and can include family members and people from the community. Expanding the program will allow anyone not charged with a serious, violent or sexual crime to have access to this form of court diversion.

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Diana Whalen is hoping it's another way to divert cases away from the province's already clogged court system.

"We know our court system is really backed up and we're under a lot of pressure to get cases heard more quickly, so I hope this will be one part of the solution to us having fewer cases that really shouldn't be before a judge," she told reporters at a news conference to announce the expansion.

More than 1,600 adult cases have been through restorative justice since 2011 in the four pilot jurisdictions, according to the province. 

Taking ownership

For her part, Stewart is pleased with the way things have been resolved. She said she was "really messed up" when she broke into the café.

"When I was approached about this restorative justice program it was the only opportunity I saw to actually take ownership for what I did," she said.

"What we're all told to do is look the person in the eye that we wronged and say sorry, and mean it. I was given that opportunity and, as terrifying as it is to look someone in the eye and say I did this to you, I really appreciate the opportunity and I think it was needed and I think that it's a good opportunity for anyone, really."

Peters said she didn't feel cheated in any way by the fact Stewart bypassed the court process and wasn't jailed.

"No. Once you get to know the person and you know that they're a person and they made a mistake and they're remorseful then there's definitely a need to move on and it's a healing process," she said. "I definitely feel like I've been healed by getting to know her and getting some answer from her."