Of Aboriginal descent, the judge took it on her own initiative six years ago to open the province’s first court dedicated to restorative justice for sentencing on criminal and family court matters. A similar court opened in North Vancouver last month.

“Judge Buller Bennett is restorative justice personified,” said Pamela Shields, manager of Aboriginal services for the Legal Services Society. “It’s a path out of this endless cycle of aboriginal people being caught up in the criminal justice system.”

Aboriginals are vastly over-represented in the system and their rate of incarceration is far higher than their proportion of the population. The disparity has long been explained as a reflection of poverty, language and cultural differences, but there may be other underlying factors.

One speaker described the issue as the consequence of centuries of colonial domination compounded by residential schools and the removal of children from their families.

....First Nations court takes a holistic and restorative approach, the judge explained. After a plea is taken, she orders a pre-sentence report with a Gladue component. Next, the Crown describes the offence and position on sentencing, and then everyone in the court can speak to the case, including the offender, elders, social workers, family members, victims and police.

Sentencing is referred to a “healing plan,” its aim being to get to the root of the problem and provide supports and referrals to services that counter recidivism. Two-way community involvement is critical to the process, she noted.

“People who are marginalized don’t think they have anything to offer,” the judge said. “Included in the community, they’re not so marginalized … And they become a person of value.”

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