The Challenges of Youth Justice in Rural and Isolated Areas in Canada

2. Review of the Literature

2. Review of the Literature

Although rural and isolated northern communities are often identified as a single entity for purposes of policy making and program development, the criminal justice literature makes the distinction between the two quite clear. This is particularly true for countries such as, Canada , the United States ( Alaska ) and Australia , which have isolated and often remote indigenous populations.

2.1 Youth justice in isolated/remote indigenous communities

Much of the scholarly and government based literature has focused on Aboriginal communities in isolated areas. In this literature, the central issue addressed, for communities, individuals and the criminal justice systems in Canada , the US (Schafer et al ., 1997) and Australia (Doherty, 1999) has been the over-representation of Aboriginal youth in the criminal justice system. Discriminatory processing, cultural alienation and lack of resources to respond to the needs of communities, victims and offenders have been the focus of much of the literature (Schafer, 1998; Kueneman et al. , 1992).

Added to this has been the changing profile of youth crime and disorder in isolated aboriginal communities in the north, which as contributed to a limited youth justice response. For example, Parry (1996) found there were high rates of serious delinquency in Native villages in Alaska , where traditionalism is weak and/or alcohol and drugs are accessible, but there was minimal youth justice activity to address the problems. Griffiths et al . (1995) found the crime rate six times higher in Baffin Island , Nunavut , than in the rest of Canada , and as high as some of the worst areas in the U.S. Here too, there was a weak or limited response to youth criminal justice needs.

The early 1990's saw field work among the Cree of James Bay, Quebec (La Prairie, 1991); in the Yukon (La Prairie, 1992); in the Nishnawbe-Aski communities in Ontario (Auger et al., 1992); and in northern Saskatchewan (La Prairie, 1997). The various research activities explored the nature of youth crime and disorder in these communities as well as possible solutions involving local justice and customary law. These research activities also examined problems with the delivery of justice services in these communities and the potential for the creation of a new relationship between the local community and the criminal justice system. Geography and distance, lack of familiarly with the workings of the criminal justice system, delays in the formal response to crime, leniency and /or inappropriateness of sentences, and a lack of human and other resources were consistently identified by local respondents as the factors that most contributed to the ineffective delivery of criminal justice services to communities.

The correctional research conducted by Evans et al . (1998) in the NWT also speaks to the lack of resources available to community members. When asking community members about the role of communities in the delivery of services, the researchers found that many people suggested, "the idea amounted to government 'offloading' of problems onto communities, without the accompanying resources to accomplish the task" (p. 9). Some felt communities were being asked to take on too many additional responsibilities at once. However, differences in reaction about the role of communities in the delivery of justice services were observed between the west and Nunavut , and between older and younger community members. In Nunavut , community members were more likely to suggest that the community would be willing and able to handle the challenges presented by having more offenders serve their sentences in the community. A majority of other community members, however, suggested that their communities were not currently in a position to take on this challenge.

2.2 Prevalence of Youth Crime

Another focus of research in northern Canada and Alaska has been the growing problem Aboriginal youth present to communities and to the criminal justice system. This problem is variously explained by the disproportionate number of children and youth in these communities (La Prairie, 1991), increased use of alcohol and drugs (Bouchard and Pelletier, 1986), and youth aggression (Condor, 1992). Clairmont (1999) found that young Inuit males in Nunavut presented the most serious problems for communities and the criminal justice system. He describes them as "reportedly angry, confused, ill-educated and underemployed compared to their female Inuit peers, striking out at themselves and others, and locked in anti-social alcohol and drug abuse adaptations" (1999:4).

However, the perception of youth as being the major justice problem in communities is not always accurate. For example, in the James Bay Cree and LaLoche research, youth occupied a central place in community perceptions of crime and disorder but were not necessarily the group most responsible for crime (La Prairie, 1991, 1992, 1997).

2.3 Circuit courts and sentencing research

Other research has focused specifically on circuit courts. In a three-year study of the circuit juvenile court system in northern and rural Manitoba , Kueneman et al. (1992) found that non-aboriginal respondents were satisfied with court circuit arrangements, whereas Aboriginal respondents were more critical of them. However, all respondents stressed the need for courts to be knowledgeable of community history, community conditions, aboriginal and northern culture and the availability of legal aid. Like the work of La Prairie (1991) in northern Quebec , respondents expressed concerns about the leniency of the system and the slowness of the process. Respondents in the Baffin Island study voiced the same complaints about leniency, which Griffiths et al. (1995) attributed, in part, to attempts by court personnel in the north to make the system more sensitive to Inuit needs.

In terms of discriminatory treatment of indigenous/minority youth in isolated or remote communities, the research is contradictory. Parry (1996) found that the treatment of village youth in Alaska did not differ from that of youth in urban or non-indigenous communities; and where comparisons in processing were made, most favoured Alaska Natives and/or disappeared when community type was controlled. La Prairie (1992a) found no disparities in sentencing decision-making for youth in James Bay Cree communities when compared to a non-Aboriginal youth sample from Val D'Or , Quebec .

However, Bond-Maupin (1992) argues that the imposition of a colonial system of justice discriminates against Native American youth and results in their arrests for more minor acts of delinquency. Subsequent work by Maupin and Bond-Maupin (1999) indicated that while race was not a significant factor in urban and rural jurisdictions, rural jurisdictions had more formal processing and detention of youth, and qualitative data revealed both race and class influenced these decisions.

2.4 Youth justice in rural communities

In 1980, De James analysed data from rural communities and concluded "rural areas lack social service resources, specialization, and a wide range of juvenile justice programs and facilities advocated by national-setting groups". Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s the "lack of resources" lament continued.

However, while resource needs for youth persist, Hagan's (1977) work on criminal justice (judicial sentencing) in urban and rural settings in Alberta reminds us of the importance of developing conditions for the delivery of rural justice. Hagan found that in 1973 decision-making by probation officers tended to treat Indian and Métis offenders more harshly. It is important to note, however, that the rural systems were much less professionalized in the 1970s than the current system. For example, in rural Alberta in 1973, only 34% of rural judges had law degrees and probation officers were staffed with people with police backgrounds rather than with trained social workers, as was the case in urban areas (Hagan, 1977).

2.5 Court and sentencing research

With the exception of the early work of John Hagan (1977) in Alberta , much of the available research on justice and youth justice in rural areas has been conducted in the US . The 1970s and 1980s saw a proliferation of research on rural courts (for a review see Feld, 1991), all of which identified significant urban-rural differences in sentencing. These differences were attributed to the social context of rural communities and the adoption of less legalistic models of sentencing in rural courts.

In general, these studies found that offenders may be treated differently based on locale and that differential processing is more prevalent in rural settings and declines with urbanization and bureaucratization. Classical sociological theory suggests that informal social control works best in traditional rural communities where homogeneity and uniformity of beliefs exist. In urban areas, population density, anonymity and diversity weaken social cohesion and increase reliance on formal social control. However, as researchers in Canada 's north and in Alaska have pointed out, tradition has broken down in many Aboriginal communities, bringing with it a loss of informal social control and a dependence upon external, more formal systems of justice.

In analyzing rural and urban youth court data in Minnesota , Feld (1991) found compelling evidence of "justice by geography". By this he meant that a "court's social context strongly influences the ways in which cases are selected, heard and disposed" (p.162). He found that social structure is associated with differences in rates of juvenile criminality, the amount of procedural formality, and the way in which the juvenile justice system is administered. Differences are reflected in the selection of cases, the presence of counsel, pre-trial detention and sentencing practices.

2.6 Differences in treatment and community characteristics

In homogenous and stable rural communities, juvenile justice is less formal and sentences more lenient than is the case in heterogeneous, diverse, less stable urban communities. This was not the case, however, in a later study of the use of detention in a rural and an urban area which were both predominately Hispanic (Bond-Maupin and Maupin, 1998). In contrast with Feld's work, the rural jurisdiction had more formal processing and detention of juveniles than the non-rural jurisdiction.

Parry (1996a) found that race and community characteristics have separate and combined effects on the processing of juvenile cases. In earlier research, Pawlak (1980) found that rural courts were more likely to hold formal hearings than urban courts but exhibited greater variation in the use of institutionalization. However, based on the available data, the stability and homogeneity of the rural areas examined by Feld, Parry, Maupin and Bond-Maupin and are not comparable.

Parry (1996a) argues that the treatment of American Native youth may depend more upon community variations in juvenile justice practices than on overt racial bias, as is typically argued for African-American and Hispanic youth. Community cohesiveness and the availability of adolescent resources - a problem for rural reservations and Alaskan villages - affect juvenile justice processing and outcomes. The lack of such resources may subject Native youth to external social control systems that are in conflict with the values of their own communities. The centralization of a justice system that exercises social control over Native youth, combined with the erosion of traditional social controls, has produced critical deficiencies at the level of the village in the resources available for addressing crime and crime-related problems.

A study of youth crime and young offenders in rural areas of Britain found that a lack of resources such as youth services, training, employment and housing undercut the ability of rural agencies to develop effective responses (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, 1997). This suggests that even though criminal justice may be more informal in these areas, without adequate resources for youth, even informal justice is limited in its effectiveness. However, earlier work revealed that troubled youth are much more visible in rural than in urban communities, and subject to community hostility and harassment. Resources are also more limited to respond to their needs and often those involved in providing assistance to these youth may receive limited co-operation from hostile communities (Dahl, 1980).

2.7 Solutions

If one looks to the literature of the 1980s and early 1990s, the impact of Aboriginal constitutional initiatives and the attention to popular justice and alternate dispute resolutions are prominent. Problems with the delivery of justice services to Northern and isolated Canadian communities were identified as early as the 1950's, when Mr. Justice Sissons made his initial foray by bush plane into isolated Inuit communities and circuit courts becoming a regular part of the northern criminal justice landscape.

However, the 1980s brought into sharp focus the issue of community and/or indigenous control of justice as demonstrated in the work of Bouchard and Pelletier (1986) in Povungnituk, Northern Quebec; Zion (1982) in the US; and the Northern Conference (1984) in British Columbia. The early 1990s saw the emergence of a variety of alternatives designed to reflect local opinion and control. These activities had particular relevance for rural or isolated communities. These were the communities most affected by the lack of resources to support the criminal justice system and by their geographic distances from it.

As early as 1980, scholarly literature in the United States indicated that increased cooperation between the juvenile court system and local school personnel may address the lack of justice related resources available to young people (Brown, 1980). Current literature continues to suggest the need for qualified people, adequate resources and clear objectives when dealing with juvenile justice suggesting that considerable obstacles continue to persist (Wright, 1997).

There is considerable overlap and consensus in the kinds of solutions that have been proposed for addressing youth justice problems in rural or isolated communities. Generally these recommendations focus on procedures that integrate community values into the system and, as a result, have the potential to be more successful than the current system. For example;

  • De James (1980) advocated a rural model of criminal justice which would be based on the cohesiveness and strength of rural communities;
  • Parry (1987) argued that Alaska state resources would be used most effectively by continuing the Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services policy of diverting minor offenders out of the juvenile justice system and concentrating available services on those youth who commit serious or multiple offences;
  • Respondents in the Kueneman et al . (1992) study of the juvenile court system in northern Manitoba favoured the development and use of community committees and community-based juvenile dispositions; and
  • King and Schafer (1998) advocated a return to the community level prosecution of minor misdemeanors to allow tribal courts and councils in Alaska to adjudicate minor offences and provide follow-up to reduce the over-representation of Native youth in the justice system.
  • In Canada , justice committees have become a vehicle for bringing community involvement into the processing of youth and are viewed, in the Aboriginal context in particular, as sharing principles with restorative justice (Neilson, 2000).
  • In addition, community or family group conferences have gained international prominence as alternatives to formal processing of youth (Galway and Hudson, 1996). Not only is the conferencing approach considered to be more culturally appropriate to some communities, it also has the advantage of not requiring the kind of infrastructure required for the operation of the formal system. Consequently, conferencing has particular resonance for rural and/or isolated areas.
  • On the basis of his research on general justice needs in Nunavut , Clairmont (1996) argues that the community is clearly the focal point for the delivery of justice services, for the substance of the programs and, in restorative justice, for the philosophy underlining the services and programs. He advocates many more community initiatives where local control and ownership are paramount.
  • In Nunavut and other Aboriginal communities facing similar problems with crime and the response of the criminal justice system, Clairmont also sees the need to experiment with different models of justice service delivery. On a related issue, La Prairie (1991, 1992, 1997 ) argues for systematic monitoring and evaluation of local projects.
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