14 year old finds alternative to court system- Globe and Mail

14-year-old finds alternative to court in sentencing circle

Face-to-face acknowledgment, handshake, even shame may help girl to stay out of trouble in the future, ANTHONY REINHART writes

In late afternoon on a grey winter day, the corridors of the Etobicoke Civic Centre

seem like the last place to find a bright idea.

Drab and dim, the sixties-era municipal building near Highway 427 and Burnhamthorpe Road exudes just a touch more charm than a nursing home stricken with the Norwalk virus.

Still, to the 14-year-old girl awaiting her fate in Committee Room 1, it’s far better than the courthouse. The girl is here to answer to an assault charge, but in a process that will spare her a criminal record, guilty though she is.

It’s called a sentencing circle, and by the time it’s over in a couple of hours, the girl will have owned up to her actions, albeit grudgingly, apologized to her victim face to face, and perhaps been shamed enough by the proceedings to keep her away from committing crime in the future.

Her chances look good, if she’s anything like the hundreds of young offenders who have attended similar sessions as an alternative to court trials since they began in Scarborough two years ago as a way to reduce backlogs in the youth courts.

The sessions are run by a program called PACT, which stands for participation, acknowledgment, commitment and transformation. Participants, usually first-time offenders charged with relatively minor crimes, admit guilt and agree, in consultation with their victims, to atone for their actions, usually through apologies, counselling and community service.

While statistics show that 43 per cent of young offenders in Canada typically offend again within a year, PACT claims a repeat-offence rate of just 5 per cent.

And at $500 per session, funded by private donations, the program comes cheaper than a $2,000 court case, which can lead in turn to even more expensive consequences, such as time in custody.

PACT’s success, hailed by the assistant Crown attorney who runs Scarborough’s youth court, led to the program’s expansion to Etobicoke just before Christmas.

On its face, the program appears soft compared with a court hearing. It takes place in a carpeted meeting room, with chairs arranged in a circle for the accused, the victim, their families and the two casually dressed PACT officials who conduct the session, a far cry from the courtroom, with its prisoner’s box, imposing judge’s bench and lawyers’ tables on opposing sides.

But before long, you see that PACT probably works for that very reason: It’s up close and personal, and there’s nowhere to hide.

In this case, the girl was charged last fall after she went to a school to confront another girl for harassing her little sister.

Heated words led to a fight that left the victim, slightly younger, with minor leg injuries.

As the session begins, volunteer facilitator Neil Webster lays out the ground rules, all of which are broken at some point: “One person speaks at a time. No interrupting. ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer, unless it’s the absolute truth.”

The accused goes first, offering an account that paints her actions as neutral at best.

“I told her to stay away from my sister. Then her friends came and everybody came,” she says, flanked by the same sister, their mother and a family friend.

“I got pushed, I fell on her, I ripped my pants; she pulled my hair. I fell on [the victim] and we both got hurt.”

Visibly angered, the victim, clearly no shrinking violet, offers a different version.

“Before we fell to the ground, she kicked me,” she says, seated next to her mother. “Then everybody started pushing and we fell to the ground.”

For the rest of the session, Mr. Webster and a fellow PACT worker nudge the two girls closer to agreement on the facts, and the accused, in particular, toward accountability for instigating the fight.

The girls’ mothers weigh in with their feelings of fear, concern and shame over what happened.

Still, when the time comes for the girl to make restitution, she only offers to “stay away from her, and not to have any conversation with her.”

Mr. Webster is not impressed: “I think they’re going to want more than that, and I think more than that is appropriate,” he says.

The victim’s mother suggests anger-management counselling and written apologies to her daughter and to the school where the fight took place.

The accused girl, bolstered by her own mother, relents. An agreement is printed out, the girl signs it and the session ends.

When Mr. Webster suggests a handshake, the two girls lean forward in their chairs and briefly clasp hands.

Their smiles are brief and lukewarm, but they’re smiles nonetheless.

As the girls and their families rise to leave, PACT co-founder Dave Lockett, a Toronto businessman, is not completely convinced of the girl’s remorse.

Mr. Lockett, who runs a transportation company, has seen far more contrition at previous sessions, and says this girl came dangerously close to having her case handed back to the courts.

Still, PACT’s track record, after more than 500 cases in Scarborough, gives him encouragement.

“I firmly believe this offender will come out of this a hell of a lot better” than she would have from court, he says, because she got to see how her actions affected others, and because the victim had a say in the consequences.

And that’s likely to stick with her far longer than anything a brief, sterile hearing before a judge would have offered.