Hate rehab: why some want alternative to jail for racist graffiti

Religious leaders in Ottawa are suggesting an alternative to jail should be explored for the person found responsible for spray-painting racist graffiti on several buildings last week.

Teen faces 20 charges with 10-year maximum sentence for racist graffiti incidents

Rev. Anthony Bailey points to a section of wall outside Parkdale United Church that was spray-painted with racist graffiti. The messages have since been removed. (CBC)

Religious leaders in Ottawa are suggesting an alternative to jail should be explored for the person found responsible for spray-painting racist graffiti on several buildings last week.

Police have been interviewing a teen who faces 20 charges linked to six graffiti incidents that took place between Sunday, Nov. 13, and Saturday, Nov. 19.

The graffiti included swastikas and racial slurs spray-painted on signs and exterior walls of synagogues, a Muslim community centre and a United Church.

The final act of vandalism took place Saturday night at a Jewish community centre near Broadview Avenuem which led to an arrest and charges against a teenager.

Mischief related to hate: 10-year maximum

The most serious of the charges — six counts for each incident of mischief related to religious property — carries a maximum 10-year sentence if "the commission of the mischief is motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on religion, race, colour or national or ethnic origin," according to Canada's Criminal Code.

The charges have not been tested in court.

But not everyone wants to see the person responsible punished with a long jail sentence.

Rev. Anthony Bailey is the pastor at Parkdale United Church, where the word "n--ger," swastikas and other phrases were spray-painted last Friday.

It was the second time someone vandalized the church with racist slurs this year, but though he's relieved by the arrest, he doesn't want someone to go to jail.

A man begins to wash graffiti off the walls of the Machzikei Hadas synagogue. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

'We hold out hope that the person is redeemable'

"The first time I made an offer and it still stands," said Bailey, adding he wants to meet with the person responsible, try to understand why they hold their beliefs and work to change them.

"As Christians we talk about forgiveness. Some people confuse that. What we're doing is forgiving the person, not forgiving the act. And what it means is that we hold out hope that the person is redeemable, the person can change and be transformed."

Rabbi Reuven Bulka with the Machzikei Hadas synagogue, which was spray-painted last Thursday, said that while adults should be held accountable for their actions, if the person is under 18 an alternative to jail should be explored.

For someone who is not yet a fully developed adult there is an opportunity for rehabilitation.- Rabbi Reuven   Bulka

"For someone who is not yet a fully developed adult there is an opportunity for rehabilitation," said Bulka.

"That would be a win-win."

Collaborative justice

In Ottawa, the Collaborative Justice Program offers alternative sentencing, including opportunities for victims to meet and talk to those responsible for a crime, as well as develop plans to address and fix the harm done.

Eric Granger, a board member with the program, said this kind of case, which has resonated so widely with the broader public, addresses not just the need to rehabilitate the person responsible but the need for the public to understand why it happened.

"There's a lot of lingering questions often felt by victims of crime that aren't typically answered by the traditional process," said Granger. "The biggest one being why. Why did this crime occur? Why did it happen to me?"

Vern Redekop with the Conflict Research Centre at Saint Paul University said restorative justice offers people involved in hate crimes a chance to deal with the root causes.

"There's an extreme sense of 'othering' where the 'other' becomes dehumanized, leading to strong feelings of hatred or resentment," said Redekop, who has been a pioneer in the development and research of restorative justice since the 1970s.

"Generally in situations like that if you just resort to punishment, people are just resentful of the punishment and it doesn't do anything to break down the human barriers between the different sides," he said.

But restorative justice models depend on a number of elements falling into place, he explained. The Crown has to want to get involved and the victim and the accused both have to want to participate.

Also, typically the accused needs to admit guilt.

MP's bill calls for stiffer penalties

This week the issue of punishment in hate crimes will go before parliamentarians as they debate a private member's bill launched by Nepean's Liberal MP Chandra Arya.

In September Arya tabled Bill C-305, which calls for the current maximum penalty for mischief on religious buildings motivated by hate to be extended to all public buildings, including universities, community centres, daycares and sports arenas.

A similar bill was tabled and failed in the past, but Arya said he's received broad support from his colleagues in the House of Commons.

On Tuesday he will open up debate before a vote on the second reading of the bill.