The Elmira Case… and beyond!
By Russ Kelly
Who could have imagined that a vandalism spree involving 2 drunken teenagers in 1974 would lead to the restorative processes of today? The effects are widespread indeed; from restorative programs in the justice system, to family group conferencing, to victim-offender mediation, to anti-bullying in schools. The list goes on and on. And to think it all started with a seed planted in 1974 when another offender and myself in the Elmira Case agreed to meet our victims and repair the harm we had caused.
Life has never been easy. In 1962, when I was just six years old, my father died, leaving my grieving mother to look after my 7 siblings and me. My mom had to sell the family farm to make ends meet. When I was 15, my mother died, leaving me in the care of a brother.
The loss of my parents, my traumatic life as a child, had left me wracked with pain. I turned to alcohol, drugs, and eventually, I turned to crime. My behavior increasingly led me to be somewhat of a mainstay in local courtrooms. I was wasting away my young life until one day, in court, I was given a chance to turn my life around. I now had an opportunity to make a difference -- I agreed to meet the people I had hurt and I agreed to make amends. Unwittingly, the seed for what is now referred to as Restorative Justice had been planted from my involvement in what is internationally known as "The Elmira Case". It was a drunken rampage that changed legal history!
On that day, my life changed forever as I managed to overcome the challenges of a punitive society and turn my life around. Meeting my victims taught me a valuable lesson in humanity and I never damaged anyone’s property after that, but I still had a problem. It took another 20 years to kick my addiction to drugs and alcohol. I was tired of waking up sick and tired. And, I was tired of going to funerals. I was on a road to nowhere. So, I had to make a choice. I moved, changed jobs, stopped going to hotels, and stopped hanging out with the people that could feed my established habit. Still, I was taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back. The journey ahead was a rough one as I tried to escape my self-destructive life. That is when I met Irene and we fell in love. She gave me purpose and reason. My life improved as I strive to be a better person.
“The Elmira Case” is best known as the first documented case in Canada where the legal system became involved in Restorative processes. The crime spree is best described as a 2-hour vandalism rampage by a couple of teenagers in a drunken haze. Subsequently, upon our arrest we confessed and agreed to meet our victims face-to-face, apologize, and pay for the damage.
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