Network, Winter 2005
Keeping kids out of jail is a full-time job for Natalie St. John. She’s a youth court worker at the Newmarket Provincial Court, where young offenders are sent from all over York Region. She’s also the assistant coordinator of the Youth Court Action Planning Program (YCAPP) in York Region, a Legal Aid Ontario pilot project that’s helping young people stay out of custody by connecting them with community resources.
Delivered in partnership with Operation Springboard, YCAPP serves youth between the ages of 12 and 17 who are eligible for legal aid. While other diversion programs are available for first-time, non-violent offenders, YCAPP’s diversion component is for young people who don’t fit that category — a boy who gets into a schoolyard fight and gives someone a bloody nose, for example, and is charged with assault causing bodily harm.
“When defence counsel has someone they think would benefit from YCAPP’s services, they refer the youth to me,” explains St. John. “I complete an assessment on the youth to determine if they’re a manageable risk for a community-based plan, or if a diversion plan would make sense in the circumstances. I then link the youth up with community agencies by making referrals and appointments for them.” The program is voluntary, and each young person who is accepted into YCAPP gets a detailed, individualized plan.
“Defence counsel would then present this plan to the Crown Attorney, and if it’s accepted, the youth would be diverted out of the court system, or the plan may serve as an alternative to a proposed detention order or custodial sentence. With respect to diversion plans, the youth always has to come back to court to prove that they’ve done what they said they were going to do.” At that point, the proceedings may be stayed, the charges withdrawn, or a peace bond issued.
Launched in July 2002 in anticipation of the new Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), the YCAPP program has three objectives: to reduce the number of youth going through the court process by increasing diversion, to increase opportunities for release at the bail hearing stage, and to reduce the over-reliance on custody as a response to youth crime.
Asked to provide a case example, St. John tells the story of a young woman living in a group home who was diagnosed with a mental illness and on medication. “She had an episode one night, and threw shampoo and nail polish all over the walls of the group home. She was charged with mischief and actually held in custody. I called the Children’s Aid Society and got them to come and have her released into their care. She was already involved with a psychiatrist, but I was able to get the psychiatrist to see her on a more regular basis. What was happening, in fact, was that her medication was being altered at the time, and that was causing some imbalances, causing her to have certain behaviours.”
In the plan she presented to the court, St. John recommended that the girl’s case be put over for about three or four months, while the medication was worked out with her doctor. She then brought in a letter from the psychiatrist, confirming that things were back on track and explaining the medication issue. The young woman also performed some community service hours. In the end, her charges were withdrawn.
YCAPP began in Toronto at the 311 Jarvis court, then moved to two other Toronto courts, and finally to the Newmarket court in January 2003. As of November 30, 2004, there have been 1232 referrals to the four courts combined, resulting in 887 plans completed, with 796 accepted by the court — a 90 percent success rate.
Improving the youth justice system was identified as a key priority for the Department of Justice Canada, which funded the YCAPP program for the first two years. Canada has the highest youth incarceration rate in the Western world, and a review of the Young Offenders Act (YOA) in 1996 revealed that the courts were over-used for minor cases that are better dealt with outside the courts. The YCJA, which replaced the YOA as of April 1, 2003, puts special emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration, as well as timely intervention. Among other changes, courts are now prohibited from using pre-trial detention “as a substitute for appropriate child protection, mental health or other social measures” (Section 29).
For diversion plans to be effective, however, adequate community services must exist and be properly funded. “What in fact is happening on occasion, although it’s not supposed to,” says St. John, is that young people are held in custody for mental health reasons because “there’s nobody to bail them out and/or there’s no facility that will accept them in a timely manner due to waiting lists.”
Even court-ordered assessments take time. “There is quite an extensive wait period for Section 34 assessments under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which are psychological or psychiatric assessments,” explains St. John. “In York Region, it’s about six to eight weeks for a psychological assessment, and it’s about three months for a psychiatric assessment.”
Among the many agencies that St. John partners with for support is the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), York Region Branch, which runs the mental health court support program at the Newmarket courthouse. “The community resources I’m most familiar with are in the adult stream,” says CMHA support worker Jonathan King. “Natalie is much more familiar with children’s services. That’s her bailiwick. When we collaborate, I rely on her expertise about what’s available out there in the youth sector, and what kind of supports make sense.”
Although the CMHA program deals mostly with adults, it does assist young offenders as well, according to King. “One case we’re working on right now that Natalie brought forward is a young man who was charged with uttering threats. He suffers from a mood disorder, and our involvement in supporting the diversion plan is making sure that he follows through on the requirements, which basically means continuing to see his doctor and taking medications.”
King notes that diversion is voluntary — clients must give consent and agree to the treatment plan. But clients must first meet the requirements for diversion, and the recommended plan must be approved by the Crown.
Partnerships with other sectors, including mental health, are a key element of the new approach taken by the YCJA. The youth program in Newmarket is a good example of how those new principles are being enacted.
“In my view, YCAPP has been extremely effective,” concludes St. John. “Of course, I would like better access to services, and more services to be available, especially for children with mental health issues. But we’re able to put plans in place, usually at the first or second court appearance, so that our kids are only coming to court two or three times, rather than eight or nine times going through the traditional court process. And it is making them aware of consequences, and making them be accountable for their actions. So I think it’s building on the principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. I think it’s been really successful, because I haven’t seen many of the youth I have assisted coming back before the courts.”
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