RITA DALY – STAFF REPORTER
One year ago, when the new Youth Criminal Justice Act came into force, two 16-year-old boys were arrested and charged with an attack on a 14-year-old involving beer bottles and knives outside a Scarborough shopping mall.
Instead of going to trial before a judge, the young offenders — and hundreds like them — were sent to a program aimed at steering youths away from a life of crime, courts and custody.
The number of Canadian youths incarcerated has declined, due to changes in laws governing young offenders. But experts say Ontario lags in its efforts to tackle youth crime outside the criminal justice system.
With no government funding, a Toronto program called PACT is trying to do just that.
It was their first taste, at age 16, of what it’s like to be accused criminals. In March of last year, they were running with a gang of angry youths chasing another teen in broad daylight, when police swooped in. Amid denials and accusations, they were handcuffed and driven to a Scarborough police station, where they spent the night in jail.
It’s taken till now for their case to get here: A small, carpeted room where they sit on chairs, arranged in a circle, facing the boy they hunted down that day.
For a while, they dare not look at him, nor his father seated beside him.
Sooner or later, though, they’ll have to. Before the afternoon is over, they have to not only look at him, but apologize to him and, more important, mean it; if not, their case goes back into the criminal court system.
PACT — which stands for participation, acknowledgement, commitment and transformation — is based on the notion that youth crime and court costs can be drastically reduced if first-time offenders are made accountable to the community and victims instead of the criminal justice system. Cases are diverted by the crown with advice from the police, provided the offender is willing to attend and to accept responsibility.
The privately funded program began almost two years ago in Scarborough, an area paralyzed in recent weeks and months by a rash of shootings and gun slayings, particularly in the Malvern community. It just so happens this so-called resolution conference or aboriginal-style “healing circle” is being held in Malvern, at Toronto’s 42 Division police station on Milner Ave.
Diane Sparling, co-ordinator of the program since its inception, joins the circle. She has seen numerous cases like this involving youth-on-youth crime, including schoolyard assaults, thefts and weapons charges for other than guns.
They’re typically the sort of incidents that years ago might have been settled on the spot by a principal, storeowner or police officer under the old Juvenile Delinquents Act. But over the past two decades, a kind of demonization of youth under the Young Offenders Act (which replaced the Juvenile Delinquents Act in 1984), as one youth justice expert describes it, thrust these incidents into the court system.
“These were young people who certainly were upsetting the neighbours, getting into fights in schools, and so we had a lot of charging for relatively minor offences,” says Nicholas Bala, a Queen’s University law professor who has researched the benefits of youth diversion programs. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything about these offences, but we want to respond with what’s appropriate to the offence.”
In this particular case, the two 16-year-olds (they can’t be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, so we’ll call them Tony and Lawrence) have been charged with assault with a weapon, although they never did catch up to the victim.
In these circles, both victim and offender are asked to bring their parents or other relative, or members of a religious group or their community, to help shed light on their behaviour and apply moral suasion as the group revisits the events surrounding the crime.
Tony’s dad has come, while Lawrence has brought his sister. Both youths keep their ski jackets on, lean forward and stare at the floor. Everyone looks uncomfortable except Sparling and the facilitator Barb Benoliel, who recites her opening refrain by telling the two offenders she wants to hear exactly what happened that March day, “and `I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.”
“There may be things you haven’t told your parents or the police,” she goes on, “or there may be things you’re embarrassed or ashamed to talk about, but it’s important everyone hears the whole story. Today’s the day we’re going to talk about it. We’re here to help, not judge.”
Ordinarily, if the case had been handled in the court system, their lawyers would have done all the talking. If the youths pleaded guilty, the judge, ruling on a first offence, would likely have given them a year’s probation and community service.
At least half of young offenders charged with a first offence plead guilty, says Steve Rosenbaum, a Toronto defence lawyer who handles both youth and adult cases. In those circumstances, “the victim really wouldn’t have any input and your client, obviously, is happy because he got off,” he says.
Even if such a case went to trial, the chance of it falling apart is high, says Rick Blouin, assistant crown attorney at the Toronto East (Scarborough) courthouse.
“By the time it actually gets to trial, nine to 12 months down the road, you can’t find the witnesses or they don’t show up in court, or they show up and don’t want to proceed. We’re just not able to seal the deal in a lot of these cases,” he says.
In 2001 when Blouin, manager of Scarborough’s youth court, was approached by Toronto businessmen David Lockett and Dan Cornacchia about setting up a post-charge mediation program for young offenders, he jumped at the opportunity.
Blouin diverts about 40 per cent of the 1,500 young offender cases that enter Scarborough court each year to alternative programs like Operation Springboard or youth justice committees, which take on minor non-violent offences such as theft, shoplifting, mischief or marijuana possession. Instead of a potential trial and criminal record, the youth is asked to pay his debt to society through volunteer work, perhaps at a food bank or seniors’ home.
Diverting these cases not only tries to save troubled kids from a potential life of serious crime, but also frees the court system to deal with more serious cases and gun-related offences. About 300 young offenders have been referred to the Scarborough program to date and, by the end of this month Sparling, the program’s co-ordinator, will have completed 180 conferences. (The program was also recently launched in the Toronto West and downtown youth courts.)
Sparling never knows how each case will unfold. In the first 30 minutes of this conference, the events leading up to the arrest are as clear as mud. The youths were at a mall, no, at a school, the victim was in a car, no, at a bus stop, it was a juice bottle, not a beer bottle, okay it was a beer bottle but no knives, it happened at lunch, no, after school …
“Okay, hang on, I am totally confused,” Sparling says. “Obviously you’re talking about something totally different because I have the police report right here and none of this jives. So either we end it now or you start telling the truth.”
Slowly, very slowly, the events begin to unfold.
“So you were waiting for him to come out?” the facilitator asks Lawrence, who is squirming in his chair and so far has been loath to say much.
“He beat up two of our friends.”
The 14-year-old victim has been quiet up to this point. Now there’s the ever-so-faint semblance of a smirk on his face, as it becomes obvious that this was no isolated incident but part of an ongoing war between two rival youth groups or gangs.
“We get that a lot,” says Blouin as he heads into Scarborough’s youth court one morning for a typical day of remands, referrals and pretrials.
“They’re hard to deal with. And maybe mediation doesn’t seem like the best way because there’s so much going on, but the court process is just so clumsy in terms of resolving these issues.”
In the courtroom, a dozen or so teenagers sit with their parents under harsh fluorescent lights and wait for the crown to call their name, only to be given another court appearance date. Every so often, though, Blouin tells the judge a young offender would benefit from PACT.
One of the debates around programs like PACT is the question: are youth more, or less, likely to get into trouble again than if they were prosecuted in court? Blouin says anecdotally these kids aren’t showing up back in court.
And PACT’s David Lockett claims the program has successfully reduced the recidivism rate of young offenders by 90 per cent. But compared to what?
Bala says there is no research that suggests young offenders do worse in diversion programs. But he cautions against comparing the recidivism rate in such programs to the overall 43 per cent recidivism rate among young offenders convicted in Canadian courts.
“You can’t directly compare outcomes of (cases) going to a diversion program versus going to court, because typically these programs are dealing with less serious first offenders, who already have a lower recidivism rate,” he says.
He issues another caution: “One shouldn’t overestimate what can be done in an hour or so with a young person.” (Reader’s, see PACT response)
The best measure of their success at the moment, he says, is the reduction in time and court costs, as well as the satisfaction experienced by victims, offenders and their families.
A mediation conference like PACT can’t proceed without a victim, who often has to be convinced to attend. But the Youth Criminal Justice Act emphasizes that “extrajudicial measures” ought to be used for less serious cases because it helps mitigate the damage to victims and allows them a say in the process.
Sooner or later, then, it meant the 14-year-old would have a chance to speak. He tells the circle how “25 or 30 big guys” were chasing him, how his sister was threatened, how their car windows have been busted on more than one occasion.
“I told my parents it’s not safe to live here any more. It’s not just at school. They know where I live … I have to watch my back, they might hit me, they might stab me. I think about my family, too,” he says.
The victim’s father, struggling with his emotions, says the family is still frightened a year after the incident, his daughter can’t sleep and he won’t let his kids take the bus. He installed a security alarm in the house, “but still we are scared.”
“Now my house is up for sale. I don’t want to live in this area because of the situation.”
It’s almost 6 p.m. when the circle takes a break.
One of the most powerful aspects of a resolution conference is its emotional impact, says Lockett.
“The offenders see the impact of their actions on others, they hear the pleas …” he says. “There’s also a shaming, a forgiveness and a detraumatization if it goes the way it’s supposed to.”
But often it takes more than shaming to turn a youth’s life around. It’s estimated roughly 80 per cent of youths in the criminal justice system suffer from learning problems, such as attention deficit disorder, not to mention divorce and conflict in the home, abuse and poverty.
When the circle resumes, the two offenders are ready to apologize, but Sparling isn’t convinced of Lawrence’s sincerity. Throughout the afternoon he was caught lying, grinning, blaming the victim.
“This family is being forced from their home because of what you guys did. That’s a big deal,” she says firmly.
“But I don’t see a whole lot in your face and eyes and body that you’re really sorry for what you did. Do you know what remorse is? I don’t see a lot of remorse … we can go back to the judge any time.”
Both offenders sit up in their chairs. Eventually, each extends a hand to the victim, who hesitates and looks at his father.
“Be a friend,” his dad says.
There’s a consensus on their restitution: a written letter of apology, a 1,000-word essay on how to deal with anger other than through violence, 50 hours of community service arranged by a probation officer, a course in anger management, and they must abide by their parents’ rules and have no contact with the victim. In essence, much more than they would have received in the criminal justice system.
Sparling delivers parting words: “I don’t want to see either of you back here, or in the court system.”