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Youth offenders getting second chance

BY KEITH LACEY Should young people who commit minor, non-violent offences like shoplifting or mischief face the stigma of criminal records and punishment by the courts? The Greater Sudbury Police Service, John Howard Society and several community par

Should young people who commit minor, non-violent offences like shoplifting or mischief face the stigma of criminal records and punishment by the courts?

The Greater Sudbury Police Service, John Howard Society and several community partners believe the answer to that often-debated question is Â?noÂ? and theyÂ?ve formed a partnership and new program to provide alternatives.

The federal governmentÂ?s new Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) will officially replace the controversial Young Offenders Act (YOA). It becomes law April 1.

The new act mandates alleged young offenders, whenever possible, be diverted from the criminal justice system for first-time offences and be dealt with more appropriately by community services.

First-time offender charges like shoplifting, trespassing and mischief can be dealt with better using community intervention to change the behaviour of young persons, said police Sgt. Rob Thirkhill, the newly appointed youth liaison officer.

Â?ItÂ?s all about correcting offending behaviour of first-time, non-violent offenders,Â? said Thirkill.
Thirkill and John Rimore, executive director of the John Howard Society, stressed the partnership is not designed to deal with violent, repeat offenders, but strictly with non-violent, minor incidents.

The main focus of the community partnership is a Youth Referral Project.

Youth who are not charged with criminal offences will be referred to a joint committee of the John Howard Society and Greater Sudbury Police, who have hired social worker Barbara Makela as police project co-ordinator.

The committee will meet with the young person and their parents or caregivers Â?within daysÂ? to examine the offence and determine the most appropriate consequences.

The offender will have to Â?sign a contractÂ? agreeing to certain conditions such as a curfew or non-association with certain people or businesses or undergo counselling.

The offender must complete all conditions for charges to be officially withdrawn by police, said Thirkill.
If the contract is not fulfilled, the police have the option of re-filing the official criminal charge.

Between 1997 and 2001, Greater Sudbury Police charged, on average, just over 1,000 youths per year with criminal offences.

Two-thirds of the charges laid during that time were minor offences police officers will now have the option to consider for the youth referral project.

Police are confident the vast majority of young offenders will complete their contracts and not re-offend, which means police officers wonÂ?t be tied up with long days in court relating to minor charges.

The program allows for victims to be involved in the process, while assisting offenders by enabling them to change their delinquent behaviour into positive action, said Rimore.

The City of Greater Sudbury is the only community in Northern Ontario to acknowledge the YCJA was coming and take pro-active steps to try and assist non-violent first-time offenders and the community at large, said Rimore.

Insp. Susan Evans, head of the criminal investigations division for the Greater Sudbury Police, said the new youth referral project provides a win-win situation for all partners.

Laying charges for the most minor offences and putting young people through the court system hasnÂ?t been an effective method of dealing with the majority of petty crimes committed by youth, Evans said.

She explained most youth petty crime is not pre-meditated, but those responsible must know there are victims and consequences and the referral project will address these concerns immediately.

Instead of waiting for a provincial or federal mandate about implementing the new act, the police service and organizations like John Howard Society decided to formulate an action plan they believe will assist hundreds of young people.

Rimore said statistics used by the John Howard Society indicate close to 90 per cent of young people who were given the chance to opt for alternative measures and restorative justice, rather than the
court system, did not commit another criminal offence within 18 months.

Even though the federal government is instituting massive changes through the YCJA, not a penny of funding has been announced with the act becoming law in only days.

This hasnÂ?t deterred the police service, John Howard Society and community partners with pressing forward on this project.

The hope is the program will prove so successful, government agencies will have no choice but to come forward with funding to support and hopefully expand the scope of the program.

Â?We have found in the past the funding often comes after a program has achieved its goals and objectives,Â? said Rimore.