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Milgaard: an advocate for restorative justice

Prisoner rights, and mental health advocate David Milgaard says restorative justice is needed for Canada's criminal justice system.
"When you're accused, the only people who believe you are the ones who know and love you," says Milgaard. He added that mental health is growing area of concern that needs to addressed in Canadian society.

David Milgaard says prison is a living nightmare.

He spent 23 years in one for a crime he didn’t commit. In 1969, he was arrested and convicted for the rape and murder of 20 year old nursing student Gail Miller, entering the Canadian criminal justice system at 16 and was finally released at age 39, when DNA evidence cleared his name.

Since then he has been an advocate for the rights of prisoners and the wrongfully convicted.

“It’s important to say that prison’s horrible, not only is it important to say that because it’s true, it’s important because there are young people that somehow think that maybe they’re smart or they’re getting away with doing some wrong, but the last place you want to end up is inside a prison,” said Milgaard.

After spending so many years locked away inside Millhaven Penitentiary, he said it’s been a struggle to rebuild his life, noting he couldn’t have survived his ordeal without love from family and friends.

“It’s not been an easy walk, there’s no doubt about that. The one thing I had going for me inside prison is family and a mother that was always fighting to get me out. The biggest thing you need to survive inside there, are people that are there to tell you to do well in your life and do what you should be doing, rather than the things you shouldn’t be doing,” he said.

“The problem is, and we have a saying inside prison – out of sight, is out of mind, and it’s true, you know, you’re not there inside someone’s sight where they can see you, you’re inside prison. You don’t think very much about that. It’s really good to have people that are willing to make a difference.”

A $10 million dollar settlement was reached between Milgaard and the Canadian government after his release.

When asked if the money was an appropriate compensation for what happened, he says it never made up for time lost with family and friends. Milgaard eventually pushed for an independent Criminal Case Review Commission to make it easier and faster for potentially wrongfully convicted people to have their applications reviewed.

"There's better ways to deal with the problems of criminality than what is being used in this country, they use a punitive justice model, there's other justice models," he says.

"It doesn't help. 80 percent of the people housed in our prisons don't need to be there, they're not a threat to anybody's person or property. It actually makes people worse."

He says the system still needs strong oversight, even after meeting with Canada’s Justice Minister David Lametti to discuss the commission this year.

“The past system didn’t work very well at all. Police investigating police, it just wasn’t something that was working. Now though, as the transition is taking place, what is really horrifying, as far as I’m concerned as a wrongfully convicted person, is that once they have already identified people as having a miscarriage of justice, they’re not setting them free, they’re holding them inside a bunch of rules and standards and measures, to basically to surround their own wagons to avoid embarrassment and shame,” says Milgaard.

“That’s not right, that’s not justice, that’s just wrong."

Tom Summer, Alaska Highway News, Local Journalism Initiative. Email Tom at