The Community Court's Story
Although crime rates are decreasing in B.C. and across the country, Vancouver still has among the highest property crime rates of any Canadian city. This includes theft from auto, shoplifting, and mischief. Other crimes, such as assault and drug possession, are also a serious problem.
At least 50 per cent of offenders in downtown Vancouver have a mental illness, a drug addiction, or both, and many are chronic offenders. The justice system and society at large are challenged to address the risks posed by offenders, while also supporting their health and social needs. This can lead to a belief that the system is too slow, that it does not address offenders' root problems, and that the cycle of crime continues unabated. It can also lead to a lack of public confidence in the justice system.
The community court addresses these concerns through a partnership of justice, social and health care services which provide a timely, co-ordinated and meaningful response for treatment and sentencing of offenders. The needs of victims of crime are also addressed with an onsite victim support worker available to provide information, support and referrals to programs and services.
In March 2004, the Attorney General announced that the BC Justice Review Task Force, through its street crime working group, would study crime in Vancouver and make recommendations to deal with it. Working group members represented all levels of government, the judiciary, lawyers, police, corrections and social service providers.
In September 2005, the working group recommended the creation of a community court to address Vancouver's crime problem. You can download and view the report, Beyond the Revolving Door: A New Response to Chronic Offenders.
The B.C. government endorsed the recommendation and provided funding for planning and operating the new court. The Chief Judge of the Provincial Court provided ongoing support for the initiative.
The planners researched community court models around the world, particularly in the United States, where community courts originated and have been shown to be successful. The experiences of other community courts were useful in designing Vancouver's Downtown Community Court, which aims to address Vancouver's unique circumstances.
Other Community Courts
There are community courts operating and being developed in the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland and South Africa. Each one is unique, reflecting both the justice system of each country and the character of the community it serves. Many have been supported in their development by the Center for Court Innovation.
Vancouver's Downtown Community Court is the first community court in Canada, based in part on the successful Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, New York. Other successful models nearby are Portland and Seattle.
For links to community courts around the world, see the Center for Court Innovation community courts links page.
How the Court is Different
Vancouver's Downtown Community Court differs from the traditional justice system in several ways:
- The court process is more timely
- It has an integrated approach to assessing and managing offenders
- It is connected to the community
Timely court process
The community court aims to address crime in a timely way so that offenders see the consequences of their behaviour immediately and can make reparation to the community. Where it can now take six weeks for an accused who is not in custody to appear in a traditional provincial court, community court cases are typically heard within two to 14 days.
Many traditional Provincial Court of B.C. cases are delayed because:
- The accused has not applied for legal aid
- The defence counsel has not interviewed the accused, or
- There has not been adequate time to discuss the process or the options with the accused
The community court has a defence lawyer available at all times, providing advice and information to the accused and representing the accused in the community court. It can take from several months to a year for even the most minor cases to be resolved in a traditional court. Some offenders make many court appearances before their cases are addressed. During that time, many fail to show up for subsequent court dates and eventually end up in jail. By the time the case is resolved, the process has been the punishment and offenders are sentenced to "time served."
Because the community court has early access to relevant information about the accused, and because there are designated staff resources working together in one location, most community court cases can be resolved within three appearances, minimizing impacts on the victim.
Working with partner health and social service agencies, the community court takes a problem-solving approach to crime by addressing the underlying health and social problems that often lead to crime. These can include drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, poverty and poor job and social skills, which make it difficult for an offender to break the cycle of criminal activity.
Health, income assistance and housing staff, as well as victim services and native court workers, are located together in the new community courthouse, along with Crown counsel, defence counsel, a police officer and probation officers. Integrated teams representing all of these agencies work together to identify offenders' needs and circumstances and to develop effective offender management plans.
A victim service worker is available onsite to assist victims through the community court process. The victim service worker provides information, support and other assistance.
Connection with the community
The community court relies on relationships with neighbourhoods and community groups and creates opportunities for public connection to the court. The court links with the community through public forums and meetings with community groups, individuals and business organizations.
A cornerstone of the court's approach is to sentence offenders to make reparation to the community, compensating it for harm caused by their criminal activity. And because many community court cases are heard quickly, offenders can begin making reparation almost immediately, instead of being sentenced to time already served while waiting for their case to be heard.