John Reilly became a judge because he’d rather be a “referee than a player,” but now he advocates against the current justice system.
Reilly began law school even though he didn’t intend to become a lawyer. He just thought it would be a good degree to have. When Reilly graduated though, he took a position doing criminal defence law.
“I can’t say I really enjoyed it,” Reilly says. “I didn’t have enough killer instinct to be a lawyer.”
When Reilly was offered a way out, he took it. Reilly applied to the Provincial Court bench when it had an opening, and he was accepted. In 1977 he became Alberta’s youngest judge at only 30-years-old.
Reilly worked as a judge in the Canmore, Calgary and Cochrane areas, and he frequently had the nearby Stoney Nakoda reserve in his jurisdiction.
In the mid-90s, he became increasingly concerned about Indigenous peoples and their over-representation in the courtroom. This awareness led Reilly to an entirely different view of justice and who it served.
“I came to the conclusion that the criminal justice system had failed the Indigenous peoples.”
Reilly’s initial interest was sparked through a case of domestic violence. The accused had relapsed in his alcohol addiction because the tribal government cut funding for his treatment.
He had been responding well to treatment but the automatic sentence included 18 months in prison — a solution Reilly objected to.
This case revealed the heart of his issues with the justice system.
“All our system wants to do is punish people. It doesn’t want to fix things.”
After the man pleaded guilty, Reilly delayed the sentencing and instead ordered an investigation into conditions and governance on the reserve. The move led to criticism from some Indigenous leaders and as a result, Reilly was ordered back to his jurisdiction in Calgary where he could no longer work with the Morley reserve. The chief judge said Reilly had “lost his objectivity” with Indigenous communities. Reilly’s lawyer fought this in court and won his case.
The case gained national attention and Reilly began learning more about alternatives to European justice such as community justice conferencing. In this, the victim, the accused and others involved discuss the offender’s sentence. Restorative justice, the concept behind the practice, seeks to heal both the victim and perpetrator.
Reilly now believes that jail time should be considered as a last resort and that minimum sentences should be done away with. Instead, he believes, there should be opportunity for parole at any point.
He also now advocates for restorative justice.
“The Indigenous think that wrongdoing is the result of ignorance in need of teaching or illness in need of healing,” he said. “I think we should scrap the penal code and deal with all wrongdoing in the way that the Indigenous people dealt with it.”
Professor Doug King, who teaches justice studies at Mount Royal University, explains that restorative justice is a victim-focused approach.
“Engaging the victim and offender in the mediation process allows the offender to see the extent of the harm they’ve caused that person,” he says. “But it also allows the victims to get an answer to that one question: ‘Why did you pick me?’”
King explains two approaches to dealing with crime: the rehabilitation model, which focuses on intervention for the offender, and the punishment model, which seeks to deter crime through penalty.
“Every bit of research out there denies that severe punishment deters.”
But King says that restorative justice is a complementary system, not an alternative one.
“No advocate for restorative justice would argue that the restorative justice paradigm should be the exclusive paradigm.”
Reilly stepped down as judge in 2011 to run for the Liberal party in the federal election. He disagreed with the Conservative government’s minimum sentence policy and hoped to work against it politically.
Though he lost in the election, Reilly was done with his time as a judge.
“I don’t want to be part of a system that sends people to jail that I don’t think should go to jail,” Reilly says.
But, he confesses, “Sometimes I still miss it.”
Now at 74, the retired judge spends his time reading, writing and exercising.
Before the pandemic, he also enjoyed talking with his friends at “the Institute,” a literary club based in the Georgetown Inn in Canmore. Their motto is: “Drinkers with a thinking problem.”
Bob Sandford, an author and close friend, encouraged Reilly to write out his story.
“I told him one day laughingly,” Sandford comments, “‘Now that you’ve joined this very serious institute, one of the requirements is that you publish.’ So we sat down and he told me he wanted to do a memoir.”
In 2019, Reilly finished his third book. Titled Bad Law: Re-thinking Justice with an Indigenous Perspective, it’s the final volume in a trilogy about restorative justice
“I would like to see reform, but at this stage in my life, that’s going to consist of maybe writing one more book and talking about as much as I can.”
Reilly is currently working on his fourth book, tentatively called Reilly’s Manifesto: The Observations of a Renegade Judge.