Whitehorse Youth Justice Panel

Overview

The purpose of Whitehorse Youth Justice Panel, a post-charge, inter-agency screening program, was to increase young offender referrals to extrajudicial measures, reduce court-processing time, reduce remand and custody committals, build partnerships, and enhance family and community capacity to repair harm. The Panel referred youth to two diversion programs, the Whitehorse Diversion Committee and Tan Sakwathan First Nation Youth Diversion Program.

Context

Yukon courts have criticized past alternative measures processes as inadequate because the Crown relies primarily on offence circumstances and the youth’s record to make referral decisions. This approach did not take into account the personal circumstances of the offender or ensure that the youth was made aware of the availability of alternative measures early in the process, before being plunged more deeply into the justice system. The Youth Justice Panel addressed these shortcomings by ensuring that Panel representatives contact the youth at the first court appearance and provide immediate information on the availability of alternative measures.

Participation

Between May 2001 and April 2002, the Whitehorse Youth Justice Panel reviewed 97 cases and 166 charges concerning 80 individuals. Considering that First Nations people represent 25% of Whitehorse’s youth population, a relatively high proportion of charges were brought against First Nations offenders (59%). During this time period, 52% of cases reviewed by the panel were referred to diversion. This proportion is significantly higher than the (then-current) Canadian average of 16%. A high proportion (40%) of the cases involved female youth; this is almost double the Canadian average of 21%.

Operation

The Whitehorse Youth Justice Panel included representatives of the RCMP, Crown counsel, Legal Aid, Probation, Victim Services, two diversion programs and First Nation Youth Court Workers, as well as a panel coordinator and a youth representative. 

The panel reviewed, on a weekly basis, all young offender charges laid by the RCMP prior to the youth’s first appearance in Youth Court, and recommended to Crown Counsel a suitable avenue for expediting the charge. At the first Youth Court appearance, the matter was usually adjourned for two weeks to allow the youth to seek legal advice. Once the youth had spoken with counsel and the pre-panel inquiry was completed, the case and relevant information was presented at the weekly Youth Justice Panel meeting.

Upon reviewing the case, the Youth Justice Panel made recommendations to Crown Counsel on the most suitable avenue for expediting the charge. If the Youth Justice Panel recommended, and the Crown accepted, extrajudicial measures (EJM), the panel determined the most appropriate program for the referral (i.e., Whitehorse Diversion Committee or the Tan Sakwathan First Nation Youth Diversion Program).

The matter was then adjourned in court to allow time to complete the EJM. Upon successful completion of the measures, the matter was returned to court and the charge was dismissed. The panel itself did not adjudicate nor hold conferences involving offenders, victims, their families and community members. 

The Whitehorse Youth Justice Panel accepted a broad range of young offenders for diversion programs, including those who had previously found guilty of an offence and those who had committed relatively serious offences. 

Evaluation

The evaluation showed that the panel elevated the visibility of alternative measures as a viable option for offending youth, increased the accountability of Crown counsel decision-making and produced a more collaborative decision-making environment. The evaluation also revealed that, overall, diversion reduced the number of case-processing days (by one-third) and court appearances (by one-half).

Other benefits of the Youth Justice Panel included: improved inter-agency decision-making; improved service delivery; increased Crown accountability; reduced court costs; and reduced labeling of youth. The Youth Justice Panel was also effective in building better partnerships.

In this sense, the Youth Justice Panel achieved its goals of trying to increase referrals to extrajudicial measures, reduce court-processing time, and enhance the capacity of family and community to repair harm caused by criminal activity. It was less successful in reducing the youths’ length of stay in remand and in reducing committals to custody.

Recommendations

The Panel and its Steering Committee are largely professional bodies, and so a lack of community participation – and minimal family and community involvement in the process – were the primary areas of concern.  The evaluation recommended the replacement of the Steering Committee by a Youth Justice Board with stronger community participation.  It also recommended the development of procedures to expedite the processing of trivial cases.

The evaluation suggested that the Whitehorse Youth Justice Panel could successfully be replicated in similar communities, with youth and with other offender populations.

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