Pubdate: Mon, 10 Mar 2008
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2008 Times Colonist
Author: Richard Watts, Times Colonist


Community Court May Help Addicted Offenders Turn Their Lives

An experiment with a new approach to courtroom justice is attracting
the guarded interest of politicians, lawyers and social workers in

Called "community court," the three-year pilot program is scheduled to
begin in July in Vancouver. It will deal with low-level crime most
often traced to social problems, addiction or mental-health issues.
Instead of whacking offenders with a jail sentence, it's hoped the new
system will give people a better chance at turning their lives around.

"We've got to start treating people who are treatable and who are
prepared to be treated," said Attorney General Wally Oppal in a recent
telephone interview.

Oppal, an ex-Supreme Court Justice himself, said community court
represents a change in mindset for the legal profession. It's one
element of the government's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, which
also includes other programs like the Prolific Offender Management
Project, in which the solicitor general's ministry is a key player.

"Everybody in government is sold on the (community court) project,"
said Oppal.

Community leaders and lawyers in Victoria are now watching the move
with interest. Victoria Mayor Allan Lowe said local government has
approached the attorney general's ministry to be part of the pilot
project and hasn't given up yet on the idea of importing it.

Lowe said it's believed Victoria's problems with street-level crime
could be eased with the community-court approach. "We are hoping that
Vancouver is successful so we can implement it."

And Victoria lawyer Michael Butterfield, a longtime advocate for
community court in Victoria, said he became interested after dealing
with too many offenders whose underlying problems are social and not

"They just come back again, and again and again," he said. "That might
be profitable for a lawyer but it doesn't let me sleep well at night."

According to Judge Hugh Stansfield, the province's chief judge, the
initiative, pioneered in New York, promises the chance to quickly
fashion a sentence with a visible, public punishment, along with
directed assistance to address any underlying conditions, such as
mental health or addiction.

"So our job [as judges] isn't any more to sit back and decide the
case. Our job is to some extent to jump in, and to the extent
appropriate, help people solve the problem," he said in a recent
meeting with the Times Colonist editorial board.

For the Vancouver pilot, the attorney general's ministry has budgeted
$13 million as a three-year operating budget, on top of $5.15 million
to renovate part of the Vancouver provincial courthouse.

Stansfield said he thought the initial effort deserved its own space,
something different from the standard courthouse. Even the courtrooms
will be designed differently, to bring the judge down to the level of
the accused instead of sitting on high.

It will offer people accused of minor offences, such as theft, drug
possession, public nuisance or even common assault, a chance to plead
guilty and head to community court for sentencing.

There, a sentence can be fashioned to answer community concerns along
with the underlying problems of the offender.

Stansfield said community reparations can be devised by neighbourhood
leaders who understand local problems. Offenders might find themselves
painting over graffiti, wearing a specially marked bib. When these
reparations occur quickly and publicly it will give people a chance to
see swift justice in action, he said.

But at the same time as reparations are crafted, the offender will be
referred to programs or resources to help with any underlying medical
or social issue.

Stansfield said many of these resources already exist, and it's hoped
community court can act as an entranceway into this network of
programs and agencies.

The court itself has already drawn commitment from other levels of

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority has assigned two full-time
people, called justice liaison officers, who will work directly out of
community court to see offenders are directed to the right people.

Other Vancouver Coastal Health initiatives, like the 25-member urgent
response team, will also work closely with the community court.

Stansfield said ultimately he hopes the court can process 1,500 to
2,000 cases each year of the 17,000 now going through criminal court
in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, back in Victoria, Sue Wishart, chairwoman of the criminal
justice section of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association,
applauded the move to pilot a community court.

But Wishart said a new court is only half of what's needed. The other
essential half is the support of mental-health treatment providers,
social housing and detox beds.

Rev. Al Tysick, executive director of Our Place, a drop-in centre
serving street people, said unless the supporting resources are in
place a community court is pointless.

And right now, Tysick said the service providers in Victoria are
already overloaded.

"If you don't have the support behind it [community court] -- it's
useless," said Tysick. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake