New court offers new options for offenders

The court system, traditionally known for its verdicts of probation and incarceration, is entering a new arena — treatment.

The court system, traditionally known for its verdicts of probation and incarceration, is entering a new arena — treatment.

A new program dubbed the community wellness court, which launched in Whitehorse this week, is an alternative to the existing court process.

It targets the problems that lead to crime.

“There are a lot of people who have core problems and just judging people and saying ‘probation or incarceration’ doesn’t address their issues,” said Yukon’s community and correctional services director Sharon Hickey.

“Prisons do their best, and ours does as well, but the idea here is to keep people involved in their families and their communities and you don’t do that from prison as well as you can from the community.”

This court will target three of those problems — addictions, mental health problems or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Because of the Yukon’s small population, it is the first jurisdiction in Canada that will attempt to approach all three issues in one court program.

The program would bring together the court system, the RCMP, drug, alcohol and mental health counsellors, Crown and defense counsel, and the community to treat the offender.

“It will offer health, hope and healing to offenders who experience the Yukon’s justice system far too frequently,” Justice Minister Marian Horne told reporters as the court opened this week.

It’s designed to break the cycle of recidivism.

The court is voluntary. And, if an offender decides to go through the system, they would first have to take responsibility for their actions and be open to treatment.

“It’s hard work to deal with some of the issues that we’re targeting here,” said Curtain.

Then their individual needs would be assessed and they’d be assigned a caseworker.

Treatment programs will be tailored to fit the individual offender.

And the court will try to get an offender’s family, friends and community involved in their treatment.

“There’s no template,” said Curtain. “Each person’s individual needs will be considered for their wellness plan.”

For example, if the crime was drug related then the offender may have to go through repeated drug testing and counselling.

Offenders would reappear before the court on an ongoing basis to report their progress through the program.

Sentencing would happen after the treatment is completed.

Offenders can stay in the program for a maximum of three years.

The court is still in its developmental stage, said Yukon’s court services director Shauna Curtin.

It will evolve to fit the needs of offenders.

The court will sit every two weeks on Monday afternoon. It will alternate with the Domestic Violence Treatment Option Court — another alternative court run by Yukon’s Justice department.

The territory is contributing $609,000 to the program —$200,000 of the funding will come from Ottawa.

If the program works in Whitehorse, it will be brought to the communities.

The government will review the program every two years.

What will be the program’s benchmark for success?

Fewer repeat offenders in the justice system, said Curtain.

“That will be the chief marker of success,” said Curtain.

Court is a good step forward for offenders with FASD

At the moment, it’s not clear whether the court will help offenders with FASD, said Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon executive director Judy Pakozdy.

“We know that its intention is to be quite different from the normal system, which can only be a good thing.”

Currently, the system treats FASD affected offenders the same as everybody else and it’s not working, said Pakozdy.

“It’s totally inappropriate for our clients,” said Pakozdy.

“Very few of our clients have the full facial features of FAS, therefore they’re not recognized as being disabled — they’re recognized as being criminals.”

Offenders with FASD don’t understand what’s happening to them and often don’t remember the crime by the time they appear in court.

The community wellness court is a good step forward, but Pakozdy would like to see more money put into preventative measures that would stop FASD-affected people from committing crimes and ending up in the court system in the first place.

“I don’t want them in this justice system and I don’t want them in any revised justice system,” said Pakozdy.

Six of every 100 babies in the Yukon are born significantly exposed to pre-natal alcohol, according to statistics complied in 2000.

Across Canada the estimate is three in 1,000, said Pakozdy.

And people with FASD are more likely to end up in the justice system.

“They have very poor judgment, they’re very impulsive, they don’t understand cause and effect — they’re just sitting ducks out there,” she said.

Contact Leighann Chalykoff at leighannc@yukon-news.com