Repeat criminals offered ‘therapeutic court’

John Edzerza has seen justice gone awry. For more than two decades before taking office in 2002, the Yukon Justice minister worked as a volunteer…

John Edzerza has seen justice gone awry.

For more than two decades before taking office in 2002, the Yukon Justice minister worked as a volunteer advocate in territorial courts.

Edzerza has seen young adults crippled by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder stand accused in court, without comprehension of where they were or how they got there.

He knows inmates jailed at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre with mental disorders have, in the past, been treated like any other prisoner.

And he has seen the devastating legacy of residential schools — children abused and stripped of their culture and dignity — perpetuated through generations of First Nations people.

So, with Edzerza at the helm, the Yukon Justice department is taking a new approach to recidivism among criminals with substance abuse and mental health problems.

“Community court” will shift the emphasis for such offenders from punishment to rehabilitation, Edzerza said Monday.

“The Yukon is quite fortunate, in a way, to be able to do a lot of pilot projects and to think outside of the box and do things differently,” said Edzerza.

“This new kind of court will address the underlying causes of criminal behaviour.

“It will establish a process that will allow an offender the opportunity to make a concerted effort to break the cycle of drug use and criminal recidivism by providing a therapeutic alternative for offenders with alcohol abuse and drug problems, or those with FASD or other diagnosed mental health disorders.”

To begin, the “court” will focus on persons charged with summary conviction offences — less serious crimes, such as break-and-enter or minor narcotics charges.

Offenders who meet certain “designated criteria” — to be established by a working group over the summer — will be eligible for the community court option.

But eligibility will be judged individually, on a case-by-case basis.

“A person who qualifies for this court must appear before a judge and accept responsibility for their offence,” said Edzerza.

“A multidisciplinary team then prepares a treatment plan.

“The treatment plan will include substance abuse treatment, random and frequent drug testing, incentives and sanctions, clinical case management and social service support.

“The individual will be required to appear before a judge on a regular basis, to ensure that a treatment plan is being followed.”

The court will involve the RCMP, the Crown and judiciary, the committee on abuse in residential schools, the Council of Yukon First Nations and non-governmental organizations, as well as Yukon government officials.

“We’re very pleased that there will be an opportunity for flexibility and modifications specific to each individual’s capabilities,” Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon executive director Judy Pakozdy said in a release.

A lot of the people who come in  contact with the Justice system are already known to frontline workers and groups like the fetal alcohol syndrome society, said Justice deputy minister Dennis Cooley.

“We have a fairly good sense of the types of individuals who may benefit from this type of process,” said Cooley

There are “therapeutic courts” to deal with drug offenders in jurisdictions across North America, including Vancouver and Toronto, he added.

The principles involved are similar to sentencing circles in First Nations jurisdictions.

But the community court process will be modeled after the “domestic violence training option court,” which has been effect in the Yukon for five years, said victim services manager Sandy Bryce.

“Every Monday morning, the frontline workers get together with the Crown, with defence, and talk about the individuals who are appearing in court that morning,” said Bryce.

“You’d be surprised how many people really don’t want to be offending. They really don’t.”

Offenders processed through community court will still receive criminal records.

Bryce admitted that the domestic violence training option hasn’t worked perfectly in the past, and hopes to improve on the model and build on its successes.

However, Edzerza is confident community court will work for offenders who sincerely want to change their life patterns.

“This provides an option for people going into court that may have drug or alcohol problems.

“The ones that choose not to deal with those issues will go through the regular routine, where they will just be incarcerated.”

Two years in therapy are often better for an offender than two years in jail, he said.

Justice and the department of Health and Social Services have $300,000 to establish community court by September 2006.

About half the funding comes from Ottawa.