Crime and the new punishment for university students

Dalhousie takes kinder approach if students are arrested
Andrew Stobo Sniderman

(Photo: Peter Dench/Getty Images)


University offers most students their first real taste of freedom from home and family, including the freedom to do stupid and illegal things. Even good students can become drunken criminals.

This year, Dalhousie University unveiled a restorative justice program for students charged with relatively minor criminal offences. The university hopes to address crime without large fines or the prospect of a criminal record. It is Canada’s most ambitious effort by a university to get involved in criminal justice for its students. Other schools seem less keen to follow. Should universities act when students commit crimes off campus?

Fresh-faced undergraduates not infrequently find themselves teetering in a public place with open bottles of booze in front of unimpressed police officers. It happens. Indeed, it happened to hundreds of students at Dalhousie University last year. Each received a fine of $457.41. Those who were careless enough to damage property received the distinction of criminal records.

The Dalhousie two-year pilot program, made possible by an agreement between the provincial government, the Halifax police and the university, allows students to avoid fines or criminal records altogether. To do so, they must meet with affected members of the community and fashion an appropriate remedy, typically some form of volunteer program. “The program asks students to accept responsibility, gives victims a voice, creates a sense of community, and hopefully changes behaviour more than anonymously paying a ticket does,” says Dianne Norman, Dalhousie’s manager of student dispute resolution. The model was borrowed from a juvenile justice program in Nova Scotia for youth 17 and under that saw about 90 per cent compliance rates. Its proponents hope it will eventually also apply to non-students across the province.

“Students learn little by paying a fine,” says Norman. “They pay the ticket and they’re done. They haven’t learned anything except to do it without getting caught next time. Many pay from mom and dad’s bank account.” Since the fall semester began, more than 130 students have enrolled in the restorative justice program. Michael Burns, Dal’s head of campus security, calls it “post-event crime prevention.” “If we can reduce recurrence without applying the sanction of a criminal record, that’s a good thing.”

The University of British Columbia takes a more hands-off approach. When some of its students faced prosecutions for partaking in the orgy of breaking and stealing in the aftermath of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2011, the university took no disciplinary action. Punishing off-campus crime was not viewed as within the school’s mandate, even with Vancouverites baying for punishment as the justice process raced along like a slug.

Fanshawe College took the opposite approach after last year’s riots in London, Ont. Eight students were implicated in wanton destruction that left the community aghast. Howard Rundle, the school’s president, promptly suspended the students while their criminal proceedings were still ongoing. Rundle argued that the school’s code of conduct extended to egregious behaviour off campus. When schools such as Fanshawe discipline off-campus criminality, their students are guaranteed to be punished once and risk getting punished twice.

The architect of Dalhousie’s new program, law professor Jennifer Llewellyn, can understand why UBC opted not to get involved if the only option was additional punishment. As for Fanshawe College, she views its swift discipline as “both too little and too much. Punitive measures are a blunt instrument. They don’t really let us understand what went wrong and address it.”

The issue extends beyond the misdeeds of students. “The fear from the riots,” Llewellyn says, “was that civic trust in young people was breached. That’s the real worry. No number of criminal prosecutions is going to adequately rebuild that social trust.”

Perhaps Dalhousie will help its students learn better from their mistakes. The larger challenge remains. “ ‘Town-gown’ tension is an age-old problem,” Norman says. “Maybe we’ve been going about it in the wrong way. Maybe it’s time to recognize the broader impact students have on their community rather than just focusing on the individuals getting caught.”