Group claims success keeping young offenders out of trouble
TORONTO (CP) – A youth crime prevention organization that claims a 90 per cent success rate in keeping young offenders out of trouble says the new Youth Criminal Justice Act will significantly increase its caseload.
PACT – an acronym for participation, acknowledgement, commitment and transformation – has just finished its first full year of holding aboriginal-inspired resolution conferences, helping some 400 young offenders in Toronto’s east-end.
And the timing of the program’s offender-victim mediation approach couldn’t be better, with the Youth Criminal Justice Act calling for an increase in the use of measures outside the formal court process.
“Everybody is starting to recognize within the system that they can refer people into a program that works,” says David Lockett, co-founder of PACT.
Lockett says that recognition will see PACT’s caseload expand by 300 per cent, but he’s quick to point out the program was already providing ‘outside’ measures when the YCJA came into effect on April 1.
PACT works with victims, offenders, police, Crown attorneys and judges to provide an alternative to putting young offenders through the court system.
It’s a three-step process beginning with a resolution conference inspired by the Australian aboriginal community. The victim, offender, family, community and police take part in a dialogue leading to a binding resolution agreement.
Re-offenders and seriously traumatized victims then undergo specialized counselling.
Finally, a coaching or mentoring program is offered to the most serious repeat young offenders.
Although the program is currently limited to Toronto, Lockett says PACT can help troubled youth across Canada.
“With money we can make this a national program,” he said.
“We could potentially help millions of kids just by taking what’s already working and getting support for it.”
It costs PACT up to $6,000 a year for each repeat young offender that completes all three phases, but the group isn’t counting on government funding in its quest to prevent violent youths from re-offending.
“There’s been a lot of good programs that got closed down because they became completely dependent upon the government money,” says Lockett, who doesn’t want his organization to suffer a similar fate.
To that end, he and co-founder Dan Cornacchia have worked to develop sustainable funding that incorporates donations from the community.
“The whole idea is for the community to raise the kids,” says Lockett.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act is the federal government’s latest attempt to resolve the long standing debate over the best way to deal with adolescent offenders – get tough with them or try to rehabilitate them.
The law – which replaces the Young Offenders Act – is designed to strike a delicate balance, but the act has already met strong opposition.
Ontario feels it’s too mild and is reluctant to sign onto federal efforts to develop community-based rehabilitation programs. Currently, the province funds youth justice committees that hear non-violent, minor cases.
Conversely, Quebec views the act as overly harsh.
Along with the YCJA, the federal government established a youth justice renewal fund to help implement – among other things – measures outside the court process.
Groups like PACT would have to share from a pool of $17 million for the 2003-2004 fiscal year, and Department of Justice spokesman Mark Feldbauer says the money is “not intended at all to be long-term funding.”
“These are demonstrations, pilots. They’re showing us something that could work,” he said. The government would then like to see successful programs develop an independent funding model.
But Lockett says PACT will continue to look to the community, and not the government, to fund their initiative.
“The community at all levels, for mere pennies, can solve massive problems and alleviate the (justice) system of gigantic costs,” he said.
“It’s all about how many lives we can change.”
And it’s the mentor program and the change it has affected in three young offenders in particular that has impressed youth court manager and assistant Crown attorney Richard Blouin.
“Those young men were just in and out of trouble – robberies, extortions, serious matters,” said Blouin.
“We released them (from jail) to go into this program… and not only have none of those three guys got into trouble, two of them are doing fabulously.”
One of the young men has returned to school, and his marks are in the 80s.
Blouin credits PACT’s mentor program for the success, and took that message to some 50 Ontario Crown attorneys at a conference in London, Ont., earlier this month.
Although he doesn’t defend the new act in its entirety, Blouin says provisions calling for outside remedies like PACT are on the right track.
“These are the kinds of programs that are intended to fill that gap . . . this is exactly the kind of thing, I think, is intended,” he says.
“The toughest thing for a lot of young people is actually talking about things… how they feel about somebody else being a victim of what they did.”
Blouin says PACT’s mediation sessions “can really emotionally touch” young offenders in a way the adversarial youth court system might not.
It’s also a powerful forum for the victims.
“It really made me see this kid as a person,” said one 34-year-old woman who took part in a resolution conference after a 13-year-old boy threatened to ‘whip her’ with his belt during an incident involving the attempted physical assault of another boy.
“It made him more human and I guess it made us more human to him.”