Evaluation of the Aboriginal Justice Strategy

Executive Summary

1. Introduction

The Department of Justice Canada (the Department) recently conducted an evaluation of its Aboriginal Justice Strategy (AJS) to assess the relevance and performance of the program, as outlined in the Treasury Board 2009 Policy on Evaluation. The AJS has been evaluated four times in the past, with the last evaluation in 2011. The evaluation covered AJS’ activities, outputs and outcomes over the four years from 2012-13 to 2015-16. Issues covered by the evaluation included:

2. Program Description

The AJS is a federally led, cost-shared program that has been supporting Indigenous community-based justice programs that use processes, grounded in the principles of restorative justice and Indigenous Legal Traditions for 25 years. The programs supported by the AJS are unique in that the services offered by each program are based on justice-related priorities and designed to reflect the culture and values of the communities in which they are situated. Although the primary focus for most community-based justice programs is diversion of offenders from the mainstream justice system (MJS), AJS programs also provide a range of other justice-related services from prevention to reintegration. The AJS has been renewed seven times, in 1996, 2002, 2007 (with enhanced funding), 2012, 2013, and most recently in 2014 extending its mandate until March 31, 2017.

The AJS is comprised of two funds: the Community-Based Justice Fund and the Capacity-Building Fund. The Community-Based Justice Fund is a national program that operates on a cost-shared basis with provincial and territorial governments. In 2015-16, AJS funding supported the operation of approximately 200 community-based justice programs. Annually, approximately 9,000 clients (offenders, victims, and other community stakeholders) are referred to AJS’ community-based justice programs from over 750 communities across Canada.

The Capacity-Building Fund supports short term capacity-building and training projects related to building increased knowledge and skills for the establishment and management of community-based justice programs. Administered solely by the Department of Justice Canada (the Department), this fund is a proposal-based envelope of grant and contribution funding, delivered annually. Between 2012 and 2016, the Capacity-Building Fund supported 185 projects across Canada.

3. Methodology

Methods used to collect information for the evaluation included:

4. Findings

4.1. Relevance

The evaluation found that the conditions underpinning the AJS - overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the MJS and the inability of the MJS to address the problem effectively - are still in place today. There remains a need for programs and services that offer culturally appropriate, alternative means to better protect victims in Indigenous communities and to help steer offenders toward more productive and healthy lives. The AJS is designed for that purpose, and there is considerably more demand for community-based justice program funding than the AJS currently has available. The AJS is well aligned with federal government and departmental priorities to play an active role in helping to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recommendations, several of which pertain directly to eliminating Indigenous overrepresentation and resourcing alternative justice strategies. In addition, the federal government is committed to improve the criminal justice system by an "increased use of restorative justice processes and other initiatives to reduce the rate of incarceration amongst Indigenous Canadians"Footnote 1. There is agreement among federal, provincial and territorial justice officials that there is a legitimate and important role for the federal government as the lead in supporting community-based justice programs in Indigenous communities.

4.2. Performance

The evaluation found that the AJS has succeeded in supporting the establishment of community-based justice programs in many Indigenous communities, and that these programs offer a range of types of alternative programming that are recognized as being culturally relevant to the people in those communities. For individuals accessing AJS-funded programs, recidivism rates are lower than for those not participating, and the evaluation found anecdotal evidence that the programs can help bring about transformational change in the lives of participants and in some cases improve community safety. MJS officials that have had experience working with the community-based justice programs, for the most part, indicated that they offer credible and effective alternatives. However, for those officials that had limited experience with the programs did not express the same level of confidence in the programs.

The evaluation found a number of barriers to the achievement of anticipated AJS outcomes. The fact that a majority of Indigenous communities do not receive AJS support means that large numbers of Indigenous people who are in conflict with the law are involved with the MJS, which is unable to respond effectively to their particular needs, and may in fact be perpetuating the problem of overrepresentation. The evaluation also found a number of factors in AJS-supported communities that limit access to effective alternative programming. One is that the community-based justice programs rely heavily on referrals from police and Crown to enable offenders to take advantage of their programs, and referrals vary greatly from community to community. In some communities there is a strong, trust-based relationship between MJS officials and CJWs, while in others those relationships do not yet exist, sometimes because of the predisposition of MJS officials, their lack of awareness of the community-based justice programs, or their poor opinions of the programs. Data on referral proportions are not available, but there is a perception among federal, provincial, territorial and community officials that there remains a great deal of work to do to increase referrals. Steps are being taken to remedy this, such as a national Royal Canadian Mounted Police diversion initiative that is viewed as a step in the right direction.

Another set of factors the evaluation found relates to the capacity of the community-based justice programs. AJS funding enables communities to hire minimal staff to operate programs, along with volunteers or other staff paid through other sources. CJWs’ work is complex, requiring knowledge of the justice system, health and social services, child and family services, mental health and addictions services, and a range of other areas of expertise. But they are reportedly underpaid compared to mainstream counterparts (e.g., probation officers, victim service workers or courtworkers), and have relied in many cases on annual renewals of the AJS for continued employment. Staff turnover is considered high for these reasons. In addition, training resources are very limited, and there are no guidelines in place, such as core competencies, to help recruit the best-suited people for the job. Finally, workloads are heavy just in covering off the basic functions of the programs, so there is often little time left for program development, including building relationships within the MJS. All of these factors impact program integrity and ultimately confidence in the community-based justice programs.

Departmental staff have encountered similar issues due to an extended period of short-term renewals of the program and staff and operating budget cutbacks in the Aboriginal Justice Directorate. The regional presence of the program is a key value because the Department is able to work more closely with provincial and territorial counterparts to support the programs in their development of relationships with the MJS. In recent years, though, reduced staff complements and travel restrictions have meant that much of the very important on-site work has not taken place. At National Headquarters, considerable time and energy has been expended preparing for frequent program renewals instead of further developing the initiative, preparing training programs, developing policy and programs in concert with other complimentary areas of the Department, and developing a much-needed cross-departmental collaboration to recognize and act on the multidimensional nature of Indigenous overrepresentation.

The AJS was found to be an efficiently operated program and highly economical as far as costs relative to benefit. The evaluation found that administration costs for the AJS were low, especially taking into account the regional presence and efforts of Program Analysts and Regional Coordinators to support the community-based justice programs. An analysis of the comparative costs of AJS-funded programs against MJS courts demonstrates that there are cost savings to the justice system from the use of these programs. These cost savings exceed the cost of the AJS, while the program demonstrates its effectiveness in reducing recidivism rates among program participants. There seems little doubt that the benefits of the AJS exceed the costs. In this light, budget reductions through the evaluation period can be seen as limiting this benefit rather than saving money.