A National Survey of Youth Justice Committees in Canada
- 4.5 Alberta
In Alberta, there are a total of 98 designated committees. Designation is considered essential by the province and by YJCs as a means of reassuring community members and justice system officials that the YJCs' activities are legitimate and backed by legal authority.
Due to privacy and access to information legislation, the provincial government does not give out contact information on the committees. Instead, to assist the research team, the provincial government sent out a mailing to these committees, requesting their cooperation in completing a “short form” of basic information on their functioning. A total of 22 committees returned this form to the research team.
The number of volunteer members of the 22 responding YJCs varies significantly, from a low of three to a high of 60 volunteer members. The median volunteer complement was 15 members. In most cases, these members did not have experience working in the youth justice system or related fields.
Most of the responding YJCs have a Board of Directors or advisory committee who guide their activities. In most cases, these advisory committee members are officials of the justice system (police, Crowns, etc.). Four were made up of citizens drawn from the local community, one was a combination of local citizens and members of the justice system, and one was made up of members from the local band council.
Only four out of the 22 responding YJCs had a paid position (coordinator, administrative workers, etc.) to assist the volunteer members. This position was half-time or the equivalent of half-time in two cases; in one case, there were two full-time positions and in another case, four part-time positions supporting the work of the volunteers.
Of the 22 responding YJCs, 10 indicated that they did not have a “host agency” providing support and assistance. Six indicated a government agency filled this role, and six indicated a private agency as their host agency (such as a Native Counselling Service, the Calgary Youth Justice Society, or the Yellowhead Tribal Community Corrections Society).
Most YJCs indicated that volunteers were required to undergo some kind of training before assuming their duties. In fact, training is mandatory, but the timing of it may not predate new volunteers' first activities for the YJC. Local probation officials who draw from a provincial manual and lesson plan deliver this training. Additional training needs can be met or arranged by probation, to be delivered by other agencies (such as drug and alcohol or health agencies) to suit the specific requests and needs of local committees. The most frequently mentioned need for further training was in skilled interviewing techniques. To respond to this, the province conducted additional workshops throughout the province in 2002.
The province has provided grants in aid of YJCs since 2000. The amount of funds provided to YJCs varies considerably (from $500 to $55,000), and is based on a formula which takes into account basic needs as well as the numbers of cases handled annually by each YJC. Of the 22 responding YJCs, the median annual budget was $5000. Most also indicted they were receiving in-kind assistance from the host agency, a community group, or a government agency, typically in the form of free office space, office supplies, and, in ten instances, skilled services such as intake and liaison with justice system officials.
4.5.4 Individual Case Decisions
All YJCs play the central role of considering the appropriate measures in individual cases of youthful offending. Cases are streamed through local probation staff to the committees. Half the YJCs indicated that they received referrals at both the pre- and post-charge stages; five indicated they received only post-charge cases, three indicated they received only pre-charge cases, and three indicated they received referrals only at the sentencing stage. Additionally, another 11 YJCs received referrals at the sentencing stage as well as at earlier stages.
Typically, the offences are less serious in nature, usually shoplifting and mischief. Only family violence and impaired driving are excluded from eligibility for the YJC process, but the committee is always permitted to refuse a referral if the case is considered beyond its abilities. YJCs were asked to rate the seriousness of the majority of cases they saw, in terms of the how serious the offence is and how serious the youth's needs are. Out of the 22 responding YJCs, 12 rated the majority of cases as “somewhat serious” and most of the others rated them “not very serious”. Three rated them as “very serious” if the underlying problems were allowed to continue.
The number of cases seen by the committee varies, ranging from five to 300 cases annually. Seven of the 22 responding YJCs heard fewer than 20 cases per year, and five heard 100 or more per year. In most YJCs, cases tend to be decided by panels of two to four volunteer members. In one out of 22 instances, the paid coordinator also sat on cases. Some YJCs also indicated that their liaison official in probation attends hearings.
All but two of the responding YJCs indicated that they read the youth and parents a formal statement of their rights in the process before proceeding. All but two YJCs ask victims about how the offence affected them, but only nine YJCs always invite the victim to attend the hearing. Ten YJCs indicated that victims never or almost never attended hearings; eight indicated they attended sometimes; and one indicated they attended virtually all the time. One coordinator indicated that victim attendance is not always desirable, as in the case of the victim who said he would “bring a gun” if invited.
Among the 22 YJCs studied, a number of additional roles were noted including, but not limited to: assisting youth complete community service orders and other conditions; assisting youth find counselling, treatment, or other help in the community; meeting with youth, their families and community members in order to work out the best answers to youth crime (Family Group Conferencing); educating the public about youth crime and justice; and following up on youth progress.
Other roles performed less frequently among the 22 YJCs contacted included: mediating between or reconciling youthful offenders and victims; mentoring youth who have committed an offence; work to get support and resources for new measures for youth; provide victim support; help youth with school related issues; provide advice to youth courts on sentencing issues and to other members of the justice system on ways of dealing with youth crime; teaching youth about their Aboriginal culture and traditions; helping youth find employment; plan and deliver crime prevention programs; and do analogous work with adult offenders or adult accused persons.
The province's position on whether YJCs are suited to take on roles other than considering the appropriate measures in individual cases of youthful offending is that virtually any of these roles would be suitable, with one exception: cases which require skilled mediation between young persons and victims are not referred to YJCs unless participating YJC members have the proper training. The province encourages YJCs to “start small” and expand their activities slowly.
4.5.6 Sustainability and the Future
Some concerns were raised about the sustainability of YJCs, and about the YCJA. Sustainability issues raised included:
- One committee experienced volunteers who failed to appear when scheduled. Although most others indicated that no-shows can be avoided through careful recruitment and a discussion with new volunteers about the commitment they are making;
- Insufficient funding - leading to low-paid support positions for the larger YJCs, volunteers who are out-of-pocket for minor expenses, the inability to serve coffee and perform other small courtesies;
- Too few cases, leading to volunteers' losing interest and skills;
- Too few places where community service placements can be carried out, especially in winter;
- The unavailability of local programs for youth into which they can be placed immediately, rather than waiting for the next program cohort to begin;
- Gaps in local community programs for youths, especially in developing their socialization skills.
Some YJCs expressed concern about the increasing caseload under the new YCJA, or the anticipated increase in cases. Although YJCs are always free to refuse a referral if they feel they cannot handle any additional workload, many YJCs are reluctant to do so. There is a concern that the removal of the phrase “serve without remuneration” from the YCJA will create pressure for honoraria for YJC volunteers, especially in Aboriginal communities where paid work is at a premium.
- Net widening
- Net widening may, in some respondents' view, be occurring, but most felt that it was not necessarily a negative development; the view prevails that strong early intervention has a significant preventive effect.
- Mediation only by skilled facilitators
- In cases where skilled mediation is required between youth and victims, the situation will be referred to trained facilitators. This reflects the view of many professional mediation societies that more harm than good can arise from unskilled attempts to mediate.
- Emphasis on local training, expertise and control
- Many respondents felt the strength of the program arises from the emphasis on strong local discretion and expertise in its administration. Although to some extent this approach is driven by fiscal necessity, it also serves to bolster local confidence and skills.
- Flexibility in program eligibility
- The flexibility and latitude given to case inclusion allows YJCs to become involved at the stage in the case which they believe to be most appropriate. For example, if a case is considered too serious for diversion at the pre-charge or pre-court stage, the YJC may become involved at sentencing.
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