The Challenges of Youth Justice in Rural and Isolated Areas in Canada
The three problems most frequently identified by respondents were:
- Geography and distance;
- Inadequate resources and funding for services (youth facilities, trained staff; programs); and
- Deficits in community infrastructure and skills.
Problems inter-related to these key challenges were also identified.
Under this category fell a number of different phenomena. In some areas of Canada, the distances between services and the people who require them are vast, requiring either service providers or community residents to travel long distances. Doing so is not only expensive, but also time-consuming for residents and service providers whose budgets and time are already stretched. For example:
- a respondent in the NWT explained that "isolation and distance affects the cost of travel for anything - even just to bring community people from two different communities together for a mentoring session, for training, etc - so cost and problems of travel affect not just expert and professional services, but also indigenous community efforts";
- in Saskatchewan , some legal aid staff spend large amounts of time driving or flying from regional offices to provide service.
Distance, coupled with time and cost of travel, makes it difficult for youth workers to visit certain communities regularly. For example, in Nunavut , regional justice specialists, who train and mentor local community justice committees (CJCs), are able to meet with each CJC in their region only twice a year.
Even when distance is not a major factor to overcome, travel continues to present a problem for those who live in areas with limited public transportation access. For example, in the Kentville area of Nova Scotia , some families requiring services are unable to afford telephones or their own transportation (vehicles); these rural communities have no public transportation or taxi service, and although the court or service may be only an hour away, there is no easy way in. The same situation was described in the Smiths Falls area of Eastern Ontario near Ottawa , where a 30-minute journey can present a challenge for some youth and their families. Often the only way to get to court or to appointments for many rural youth is by taxi but they have no money; when they fail to meet appointments they are seen as non-responsive, and the consequences become more severe.
In some areas, travel is simply not possible by conventional means, especially at certain times of the year. Lack of roads in some areas of the far North and elsewhere mean some communities can only be accessed by air or water. Other areas can only be accessed overland after freeze-up creates "ice bridges" in winter.
In some areas, travel to services, or for service providers, travel to communities can be dangerous in bad weather. In such circumstances, travelers either risk the journey, or journeys are postponed or cancelled, creating delays in services, including circuit court days.
For youth who are removed from their home communities, geography and distances further limit familial visitation or accompaniment to appointments. This is not confined to custodial placements; for example, in the Nunavut communities to which the circuit court does not fly, the RCMP come and pick the accused up and fly him/her to court, which is difficult on the accused because family members cannot come with them. Similar situations are seen in Labrador and other remote Northern areas.
Young people's needs are not homogenous across the country. Certain areas have youth related problems that are specific to the region and require specific responses from both the criminal justice system and the community involved. In the NWT, Nunavut and Labrador , for example, alcohol abuse, neglect and abuse, lack of parental supervision and fetal alcohol related problems were specifically identified as serious needs of youth requiring services, but these were common problems in other jurisdictions as well. Mental health, sexual abuse, education and family-related problems were also frequently identified. In British Columbia it was noted that there is nothing for kids to do in remote communities so this results in drug and alcohol problems.
In many rural and isolated communities, resident or even circuit justice services of any kind are not available: people must travel to the services. Indeed, many such communities enjoy no resident professional services of any sort, including medical or educational programs.
Specialized justice services are in short supply everywhere, and for rural and isolated areas, the difficulty of persuading specialists to travel in, and the cost of bringing them in, are formidable. Among the specialized services needed are psychiatric and psychological assessment and counselling, life skills and anger management programming, and services aimed at sexual deviance, drug and alcohol abuse, and parenting skills. As one British Columbia respondent noted,
"isolated [people] generally have less access to professional people".
The overriding problem is that many small communities, at some distance from one another and from urban centres, see only small numbers of their local youth involved in the justice system. Therefore, the cost per client of providing service is high, making it difficult for governments to justify expenses related to, for example, supervising or monitoring a small number of offenders in a rural area at a distance from official probation offices.
One of the manifestations of this phenomenon is that in some areas, the same worker is required to deliver a wide variety of programs and services. For example, in most Yukon communities, social workers deliver seven mandated and four non-mandated programs, including social assistance, child protection, and probation and victim services. These multiple roles sometimes conflict, stretch the capacity of the workers, and cause certain roles to suffer. In some communities, workers may not have a youth probationer on their caseload for two years, and then may suddenly acquire three youth probationers. Skill sets may decline under such conditions.
Several respondents also mentioned the difficulty in attracting high-quality, experienced staff to work in rural and isolated areas. Further, once workers are placed they often have difficulty adjusting to the unique circumstances of the job and the environment, including being cut off from their own support systems and families, and as a result there is often a high turnover in staff.
With the concentration of justice services in certain centres, youth must be brought in or travel in for court, residentially based services and custody. In some instances, youth may be relocated from their home communities in order to receive services. Workers may try to place youth with extended family while they are in programs. In Saskatchewan , youth are transported all over the province because of bed shortages between remand facilities and RCMP lockups, and often are at some distance from family networks.
Resource restrictions also cause instability in funding for discretionary programs, which are approved on a year-to-year basis. This in turn hampers continuity of service and hinders long-term or strategic planning.
Third among the most frequently mentioned challenges is the lack of effective community infrastructure. Among the specific deficit areas indicated were healthy families, effective parental supervision and control of youth, voluntarism, positive role models (including seniors and Elders), and healthy sexual and gender roles, neighbourly support for prosocial values and activities, and community pride. Community pride can be particularly challenging in some of the Prairie towns which one respondent characterized as "dying".
The following responses indicate that there is a lack of clarity on the severity of youth crime in some communities, further highlighting the point that responses to youth crime are often community specific. Some respondents characterized some (though by no means a majority) of rural or isolated communities as being in crisis. Another said,
"When the children are in crisis [implying they often are], the community is in crisis." At the extreme, one respondent described some communities as being
"locked in an endless cycle of violence and abuse".
The deficit in community resources affects youth justice in various ways. For example, a respondent from Nunavut said communities in her jurisdiction are "ill-equipped" - meaning that there is no one to help the youth to do his/her community service, follow up with him/her, or write a report; or it is the same community person who tries to do all these things and eventually "burns out". Youth are also often difficult to work with or even locate, because they are "transient within their communities - you never know where they are from one night to the next."
It is widely recognized that many communities lack the necessary resources to deal with youth crime. Programs such as community justice committees may leave the communities involved with the perception that the criminal justice system has placed the burden of dealing with youth crime in their hands. One respondent in British Columbia noted that in the early 90s they tried to involve communities in sentencing circles and the response from communities was "don't ask us to make these decisions because it makes us the heavy"; these communities would rather have authorities play that role.
Other problems identified by respondents quite often related to the three most frequently mentioned challenges. These include the following:
- Highly mobile families, which move youth from school to school within a single school year;
- Dysfunctional families that cannot provide guidance and support to youth;
- Parents not supporting the justice process, e.g., not ensuring their child gets to court;
- Lack of follow-up to diversionary decisions and sentences imposed on youth;
- Lack of recreational and other activities for youth;
- Community apathy;
- Lengthy intervals between circuit court dates;
- Undue pressure on workers and the system generally from powerful families in small communities;
- Youth who want to leave their communities and commit crimes as a way to be moved to urban areas;
- Lack of central office support for community workers, e.g., training and mentoring;
- "Community tyranny" which manifests itself in intolerance for youth and "targeting kids to get them out of the community";
- Inability of communities to recognize when youth are at risk and in need. Even where volunteers are available they often need constant support, mentoring and validation;
- Small communities which are not always accepting of young offenders, and which have less place for them to fit in;
- Resources for youth aged 16-18 are particularly needed;
- Sporadic program delivery;
- Lack of understanding of the criminal justice system;
- Selection process for and quality of workers; difficulty in recruiting qualified personnel;  lack of quality control over selection and hiring of workers;
- Constant turnover and "burn-out" of workers; one respondent said that two years ago, five out of the 13 outlying "communities" in the Yukon had empty social worker positions;
- Lack of bilingual workers (in jurisdictions like Nunavut );
- Bureaucratic demands and paperwork involved in accessing basic services;
- A lack of confidentiality and the inability to communicate in confidence;
- General mistrust of criminal justice system officials;
- High unemployment;
- An insistence on separate resources (e.g., community centres) for First Nations and for non-First Nations residents.
There was a general consensus that geography, services and resources, and lack of money are the most serious problems. These are inter-related and of equal seriousness. However, these primary challenges were almost matched by the challenge of weak or non-existent community infrastructures. This seems most severe in the isolated areas with small populations and few human and other resources.
The philosophy of keeping youth out of custodial institutions depends on the availability of alternatives to custody and these, in large measure, depend on community programs and initiatives. Yet, even where these exist, they do not necessarily meet the needs of youth and may be so over-extended that long waiting lists exist. In some communities, programs such as Community Justice Committees may substitute for specialized programs, services and activities. Respondents recognized that the process, while helpful, was not a substitute for effective follow-through or for individualized services.
- Manitoba Justice has a practice of entering into "community participation agreements" with communities for probation supervision, community service orders, and fine options, which are predicated on enough, trained and committed people to carry out these functions. However, alternative supports like justice committees are often difficult to maintain and sustain;
- The lack of early intervention is a problem that is becoming worse in jurisdictions such as Saskatchewan ;
- The "intertwining" of problems was particularly noted in northern Aboriginal communities in NWT and British Columbia, so it is often difficult to judge the seriousness of individual problems.
The bottom line for many respondents was that even if the problems were not equally serious in terms of the number of youth affected, it was still essential to provide services for the one or two cases that exist in some rural and isolated areas. In addition to differential access to services, differential charging and processing of youth may stem from the differential availability of criminal justice services. This suggests an inherent unfairness in the youth justice system. However, in some areas the system is changing and improving. For example, Justices of the Peace in Nunavut are now Inuk, community-based, and receiving adequate training in order to meet the challenges of their jobs.
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