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Youth justice goes provincewide

|Written By Judy Van Rhijn

With eight new communities joining the Youth Justice Committee Program, Ontario has finally stitched together a complete safety net for young offenders, with community steering committees and service providers wielding the needle.

In Stratford, Goderich, Picton, Napanee, Gore Bay, Parry Sound, Cochrane, and Dryden, funding is now available so that the full complement of 54 court jurisdictions can offer restorative justice alternatives to youth.

While most of the regions are still in the initial process of raising committees and appointing service providers, in Stratford the scheme is almost up and running due to the preparation that was already underway.

The driving force behind this speedy set-up was Crown counsel Jacquelynne Iarocci who, like other local Crowns, is the chair of the steering committee and also has the discretion to decide if what is done in restorative justice is sufficient in lieu of court sanctions.

Iarocci’s particular interest comes in part from a passion for the voice of the victim, which is not inconsistent with the role of the Crown. “We hope the victim will have full involvement in the scheme,” she says. “One of the primary purposes of restorative justice is to heal the relationship as much as possible between the young offender and the victim. It allows for communication where the victim has the opportunity to have a full voice.”

Iarocci was proactive in working with the Huron-Perth Centre, the appointed service provider, for a year and a half in the hopes that funding would eventually become available. “We were considering restorative justice circles, anticipating that we would be using them, as well as other types of extra-judicial measures that are possible,” she says.

“We knew we wanted it.” Iarocci was aware of time lines so was ready to go when the announcement came, even though she was at the cottage when word of an announcement came. “It was the nicest gift I could have had on vacation.”

The steering committee had to include police, probation officers, victim service providers, defence counsel, and community representatives, all of whom Iarocci already had contact with. She had also contacted established centres in London and Toronto to find out the potential roadblocks and is now being contacted herself and asked to share her experience with the other new centres.

The Huron-Perth Centre has been running a bundle of restorative justice programs for the last 10 years, employing upwards of 45 people, although not all full-time. It runs 14 programs in all, many of which are funded by Children and Youth Services. It is also an accredited children’s mental health service and has a strong track record with youth justice and some adults.

“If there’s an opportunity for funding, we’re on it,” says chief executive officer Terri Sparling. “We have programs to cover people who have not yet been charged, with two ways to proceed when they are facing charges. There are also two programs to serve children on probation.”

“This will be the fifth youth justice service. It is a unique function for this packet of money. What it means for us is that the continuum of service response is deeper, so whether they are caught in the court process or serving community service we have a program to respond.” Sparling says that, philosophically, this new service is very consistent with the centre’s service approach.

“It addresses the needs of the victim as well as the needs of the offender, whom it aims to restore to the community and stop from reoffending. It’s a different approach to the punitive one that is only concerned with punishment.”

Sparling says there are two ways in which this new funding is unique. “It has two significant components. Firstly, the youth are being directed by the Crown to see us at a justice circle conference. Secondly, it utilizes trained volunteers. If there are paid staff, they organize volunteers in the community, so that the community has a voice.”

Sparling and Iarocci are very optimistic about getting volunteers, having already developed strong relationships with potential helpers. “This offers some real structure and process for volunteers who already have training,” says Sparling. Iarocci believes that people are very happy to be involved in this kind of healing initiative and wants to get the word out. “The more the work is publicized, the more people will buy in. More volunteers will come forward and more lawyers will know what’s going on.”

So far, the scheme is only available for certain types of crimes. “It’s not for the very serious crimes,” says Iarocci, “although things can be done if the victim and offender want to have communication. We can accommodate that but won’t be definitive because the court system is still going along.”

Perth-Huron has already begun the recruitment process and hopes to have paid staff in place by December and be dealing with cases by January. Meanwhile, the steering committee is envisioning what role it wants the justice committee to play. “The Steering Committee is convened for the purpose of making any decision under the act and to facilitate the conferencing,” says Iarocci. “The specifics and small details are yet to be hammered out. We’re working our hardest.”

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