A National Survey of Youth Justice Committees in Canada
- 4.8 Ontario
In Ontario, there are a total of 22 designated YJCs. The research team was able to contact 20 of these YJCs in order to obtain details on them. The Ontario YJC program began in 1999 with a pilot project involving six sites, and was expanded after an evaluative period to additional sites. Several of these sites are still in the developmental stages, some having recently submitted applications to the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) under the transfer payment program, and others are still in the stage of hiring a coordinator. Ontario YJCs are a form of delivery of alternative measures.
In order to be selected as an agency supporting an officially designated YJC and be eligible for funding from the Ministry of the Attorney General, the agency must be an incorporated non-profit charitable organization.
The number of volunteer members on the YJCs varied a good deal, from a low of five (in one of the smaller committees with few referrals) to a high of 96 volunteer members. The median volunteer complement among the 20 committees surveyed was “15 to 20” persons. In some sites, community interest in the program was said to be high, with at least one site having a waiting list for volunteers.
In most YJCs, some members did have experience working in the youth justice system or related fields like social work. Volunteers came from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from business, bureaucracy, skilled and unskilled labour, to social work, teaching, conflict resolution and other fields with a direct connection to youth and justice matters (e.g. former police officers, individuals with experience working in group homes, youth detention, working with complainants of crime, etc.). Most respondents felt that the ideal YJC reflects a broad variety of backgrounds, and above all, experience and wisdom in dealing with youth. These qualities could come equally from parenting, volunteering, or professional experience with youth at risk. In culturally diverse communities, the volunteer pool must reflect significant elements of the community, including income levels, ethnic and language groups. Some YJCs had yet to achieve the ideal mix in those respects. In a few YJCs, Native representation was seen to be lacking.
Of the 20 YJCs contacted, 17 have a “host agency” that provides assistance to the YJCs (office space, administrative support, office supplies, etc.). The host agencies vary and include organizations such as the YMCA, John Howard Society, Elizabeth Fry Society, Operation Springboard, and other community-based agencies, some of which have a history and infrastructure already in place to deal with alternative measures. These host agencies were selected by a local steering committee chaired by the local Crown attorney and are funded by MAG to be the YJCs supporting agency. A few YJCs noted that they do not yet have a “home” in a local agency, nor do they receive assistance from one.
In keeping with provincial policy, most of the YJCs have a steering committee who guide their activities. These steering committee members are mainly members of the justice system and generally include representatives from the Crown attorney's office, police, legal aid or duty counsel, probation services, and in some cases, representatives from host agencies (at least one YJC does not have any YJS representatives on the steering committee). Generally, these steering committees are responsible for providing advice and support to YJCs, as well as overseeing the development, implementation and administration of the YJC.
Of the YJCs contacted, 17 had a paid position (coordinator, administrative worker, etc.) to assist the volunteer members. In most YJCs, this position was half time. At least one of the recently appointed YJCs is in the process of hiring a paid coordinator, who will play a role in organizing and implementing the program. Responsibilities of these paid positions vary but generally include paperwork and the routing of paperwork, intake (receiving referrals, contacting youth and parents), other casework activities (contacting victims), scheduling YJC hearings, arranging and supervising the completion of measures, and liaison with volunteers, Crowns, police, host agencies, etc. In a few of the YJCs, the paid position is affiliated with the host agency (these duties are shared by more than one staff member at the host agency). Most of these positions are funded using monies from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG). Most YJCs appear to regard paid coordinators as vital to the success of the YJCs. Some felt the program would fail without them.
All of the YJCs indicated that volunteers were required to undergo some kind of training before assuming their duties. This training was generally delivered by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, was eight hours in duration, and tended to focus on the roles and responsibilities of YJCs (the “ nuts and bolts ”), background information on the youth justice system, and skills training (in interviewing, active listening, conflict resolution, role playing). The MAG is also developing a “ train the trainer ” program and is planning to provide advanced training to existing YJCs. Ongoing training or development opportunities were supported by many of those interviewed in areas including, mediation / conflict resolution, communication and interviewing skills, cultural sensitivity. The YCJA was covered during training for only a few of the YJCs.
Some of the YJCs indicated that the best training was to observe volunteers facilitating real meetings. In addition to the training provided by the MAG, some of the YJCs have received additional hours of training (from host agency workers, RCMP, etc.) in areas including restorative justice, conducting justice circles, report writing, cultural sensitivity training, and working with victims. The length of training required by various YJCs from all sources varied a good deal, from a low of eight hours to a high of 30 hours in one YJC.
The amount of funds provided to YJCs varies little, with most YJCs receiving $40,000 in their first year of operation from the provincial government ($25,000 to cover start-up costs and $15,000 to cover program administration costs). Most YJCs receive $28,000 for each subsequent year. At least one of the YJCs (Haliburton) received additional funding in the amount of roughly $43,000 from other agencies (e.g. Trillium), but this was viewed by the YJC as an atypical year in terms of funding. In addition, most YJCs receive in-kind assistance from the host agency, a community group, or a government agency, typically in the form of office space, administrative support, and office supplies and services. A few of the YJCs also receive assistance with intake and other skilled services (casework, liaison with police). At least one YJC currently does not receive in-kind assistance. The amount of assistance provided was viewed as too little by roughly half of the YJCs and either about right or a lot by the other half.
Most YJCs play the central role of considering the appropriate measures in individual cases of youthful offending. Ontario YJCs operate at a post-charge stage, pre-charge stage or both. Crown attorneys make most post-charge referrals and police make pre-charge referrals. In some YJCs, probation officials decide on referrals to the program.
Many of the newer YJCs were unable to state their average annual caseload, but among more established committees, the number of annual referrals varies considerably (from a high of 290 to a low of seven), with a median of 150. The sources of referrals - from police, Crown attorneys, and youth probation - also varies, with some programs receiving referrals almost exclusively from police, some receiving referrals primarily from Crown attorneys, and others receiving a mix of referrals. There are various reasons for the low number of referrals to some YJCs, including the availability of other diversionary options, the perception that the YJC program criteria are too narrow, and the smaller size of some communities. Several YJCs in Ontario have been operating for a short period of time and have yet to receive the volume of referrals of some of the more established YJCs in the province. Some YJCs who currently only accept post-charge referrals expressed an interest in also accepting pre-charge referrals from police. Only a few YJCs accept referrals after conviction in youth court (e.g. as part of a probation order).
Typically, the offences involved in cases are not at the more serious end of the spectrum, most often involving theft under $5000 (shoplifting) and mischief under $5000. Most YJCs contacted indicated that they felt the majority of cases they dealt with were not very serious, recognizing at the same time, that while the offences involved may be relatively trivial, most of the youth have needs, which must be addressed in the measures recommended by the process. Cases tend to be decided by panels of two to three volunteer members. In many YJCs, the paid coordinator attends YJC meetings in an advisory capacity, particularly in recently initiated YJCs. It was anticipated that coordinators would attend YJC meetings until the experience and comfort level of volunteers to operate meetings on their own increased.
All YJCs indicated that they read the youth and parents information about their rights in the process before proceeding. Typically, victims are invited to attend, and are asked about how the offence affected them, but in many sites, victim participation at hearings is rare, largely because most diversion cases heard are for shoplifting from large corporations, who do not send representatives. In at least one site, victim involvement is high. In another, the YJC will not take cases if the victim is unwilling to participate. This may change with the implementation of the YCJA, when more cases are expected to be referred to the YJC.
4.8.5 Other Roles
The YJCs in Ontario take on a number of additional roles which are available to them. Some of these roles are more commonly taken by some YJCs than others. Some recently implemented YJCs are still in the process of determining what roles will be taken by YJC members. In some YJCs, the role of members is limited to conducting YJC meetings and writing up agreements.
Among the 20 YJCs for which detailed information was available, there were some additional roles, which were more common. These included: to provide some support and help to victims (however, the opportunity to provide support to victims is somewhat limited because many victims have been corporations); mediate between or reconcile youthful offenders and victims; conduct family group conferencing; make recommendations to youth on agencies that the youth (and parent) may find helpful (YJC members may refer individuals to the host agency, some of which offer such programs); and follow up on youth (tracking how they do under the conditions, etc.).
Other roles were embraced by fewer of the YJCs contacted. These roles included: to give advice to youth courts on sentencing of cases of youth, or advice to other members of the justice system; plan and deliver crime prevention programs in their communities; find or provide placements or ways for youth to perform community service (in many YJCs, responsibility for locating placements is left to the youth and parents); help youth to find work by referring them to relevant community agencies; help youth to make school related adjustments; mentor youth; educate the public about youth crime and justice; mobilize support and resources for new measures or programs for youth; and accept adult referrals.
Some concerns were raised regarding the sustainability of the YJCs, as well as the implications of the YCJA.
- While in some sites, community interest in the program is high, with at least one site having a waiting list for volunteers, other sites appear to have a continuing challenge in finding and retaining a sufficient number of volunteers;
- In some sites, a problem of too many cases - resulting in potentially too much burden being placed on volunteers - was noted, while in other sites, the opposite problem was noted - not enough cases / referrals. Some sites are withering under low referral numbers, especially in small sites or sites with more generous diversion options available to police and Crowns. In a few communities not receiving enough referrals, it was anticipated that the YCJA would likely lead to an increase in the number of cases heard by YJCs (more pre-charge referrals) and sustain volunteer interest in the program. That said, on the fine line between burnout and disuse, one person offered that having a volunteer do a YJC once every two weeks is the ideal. Any more frequently, and the initiative risks burning out its volunteers, any less frequently, and the process risks loss of interest or facility;
- The need for ongoing funding was expressed by several YJCs. The need for more administrative support as well as more community resources to meet the needs of youth (CSO placements, mentoring) was also noted by some YJCs, while others (particularly those with support from established host agencies), did not find these to be significant issues.
When asked if they think the program is sustainable, most thought it was, although several indicated this sustainability may depend on sufficient funding.
Few concerns were raised regarding the YCJA, largely because most individuals interviewed did not feel that they had sufficient knowledge of the act to comment on its potential impact on YJCs. That said, some individuals expressed the concern that the YCJA may lead to more referrals to YJCs, beyond the capacity of some of the sites to handle. Some sites noted experiencing anxiety and fear over having insufficient funding to accommodate a possible increase in the number of referrals (pre-charge referrals in particular) that may result from the YCJA. Some sites were unclear as to how conferencing would work in relation to YJCs.
- Program Benefits
- One of the purported advantages of a diversionary process such as YJCs is that cases are heard and dealt with more quickly than the court process. Cited advantages of the program include: the program provided a faster, more satisfying and more meaningful intervention for early youthful offending than the alternatives, as well as a chance for youth to take responsibility for and face consequences for their actions without being burdened with a criminal record.
- Cultural Composition of Committee
- In at least one site, the ethno-cultural composition of the community is highly diverse. This creates challenges for conducting the meetings and other processes in a language that is understood by all parties - volunteers, youth and parents. Often the youth speaks fluent English, but one or more parents do not, and the youth is left to translate for the parent(s). Finding enough volunteers fluent in the family's first language is a continuing challenge.
- Apology Letters
- A major problem has arisen with apology letters (a mandatory measure in most YJCs), in that there is a concern in cases of shoplifting that large corporations will use apology letters as a basis for recouping losses and additional damages through the civil process. As a result, some sites have required youth to write apology letters, but not to sign them; and others accept the letters but do not forward them to the complainant. Some corporations are sending “claim letters” to parents, demanding compensation which is often far in excess of the value of the goods taken. Parents in turn are seeking the advice of the YJCs as to what to do with these claim letters.
- Program Philosophy
- It is clear that there is strong support for the goals behind and the concept of YJCs. Recognition of the need for a stronger, community-based response to early youthful offending, without the disadvantages inherent in the full and formal youth justice system, or the “benign neglect” of some other diversionary alternatives, is almost universal. There was also strong support for healing approaches (repairing the conflict between the young offender and the victim /community), making youth accountable for their actions and providing meaningful consequences for their actions, and creating more tailored responses for troubled youth.
- Net Widening
- The dangers that the process “widens the net” are acknowledged, but for some, the value of the program making effective early interventions outweighs the disadvantages or dangers.
- Eligible Offences
- Satisfaction was expressed with the inclusion of all the eligible offences in the process, on the understanding that each individual case would be screened for other factors as well. Regarding expanding the list of eligible offences, many respondents (and most from the more experienced committees) supported the notion. The most frequently suggested additional offence was minor assaults (a few YJCs noted they had experience dealing with such cases). Many suggested that cases with a direct and personal (i.e., non-corporate) complainant were the ideal type of case for YJCs, which had the potential to bring the parties together for a negotiated settlement. Among the other types of cases suggested for future inclusion were: drug possession; alcohol and traffic offences; Provincial Offences Act violations and; any non-violent crime. A few respondents also suggested that in exceptional cases repeat cases could be accepted.
- Funding and Resources
- To date, funding for the program has proceeded on the basis of providing an equal resource base for all sites. This is done essentially in recognition of the need for a basic level of coordination and administrative support for any such program in the province. For some sites, however, the program has been a runaway success, with high numbers of referrals, while for others, referrals have been relatively few in number, or erratic. The busier sites are struggling to keep up with the numbers of referrals, and continue to accept as many cases as they can, while dealing with the various problems that a shortage of resources can bring. Many respondents suggested that a better funding formula would have a “ stacking provision ”. That is, a basic amount of funding would be provided to reflect non-reducible costs and the need for continuity and stability in certain functions. Additional funds would be provided (stacked on) based on caseload. A few respondents, however, suggested that in order to deal with additional workload, more coordination, administration, liaison and outreach duties should be placed on volunteers.
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