Ontario announces 'community justice centres' to keep 18-to-25 year olds out of jail

The province announced Thursday that it will create new community justice centres in London, Toronto and Kenora. The idea is to connect young adults with social services, and reduce their presence in the criminal justice system.

The centres will be up and running by 2020, the province said

Stay-at-home-dad Matthew Gunton says a program like London's forthcoming community justice centre would have helped him as a young adult. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

According to the Ministry of the Attorney General, young Londoners between 18 to 25 make up a significant proportion of criminal charges in the city. 

With an eye to changing that, the province is developing three new 'community justice centres' aimed at young adults in London, as well as Kenora and Toronto.

The idea is to better address the root causes of crime by moving justice out of the traditional courtroom, and combining it with mental health, addiction and social services, the province said in a news release. 

Stay-at-home dad Matthew Gunton says this kind of model would have helped him when he was a hungry 18-year-old, struggling to make ends meet.

"I was near homeless, so I was stealing things to get by," said Gunton, who said he ended up being arrested for shoplifting. 

"A program like that could've really helped get me into stable housing, I wouldn't have had to go to those means in order to feed myself."

The province says the plan will help respond to the overrepresentation of marginalized, racialized and Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. It says local planning for the community justice hubs will begin in fall 2018, and that they should be up and running in 2020. 

Why are youth a problem?

When young adults age out of child protection and youth social services, they're at a high risk of entering the criminal justice system, the province said.

Adding to the fact is that many young adults in London are unemployed, and research highlighted by Public Safety Canada suggests a person's impulse control and decision-making ability don't fully develop until their mid-twenties. 

London lawyer Jim Dean has seen how these factors combine to overload the city's youth courts, and fill standard courts with adults who've been through the youth system. 

In London, young adults between 18 and 25 make up a significant proportion of criminal charges, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General. (imgarcade.com)

"Certainly something needs to be done," Dean told CBC's Afternoon Drive

Increasing mental health and addiction issues among young people have also contributed to brushes with the law, he said.

"I've seen 13, 14-year-old clients using meth," said Dean. "That's just years ago unheard of but it's becoming more commonplace now."

Dean said he thinks London is a prime place to give the community justice model a try.

In addition to the benefits of connecting young people with social services, Dean said moving the judicial process into the community will help Londoners feel more comfortable with the criminal justice system.

"Taking it out of that formal court setting and getting friends and the community involved, it's hoped that this will help set people at ease," he said.

So will it work?

Although the community justice model might offer a lot, Dean said he's unsure about whether the service will make a lasting difference.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," said Dean.

"If [youth] take advantage of the tools they'll succeed. If they're not, if they're resistant to it, then it's just more jogging on the spot."

Still, a similar community justice centre in Brooklyn, N.Y. offers a point of comparison.

We want the community to understand that the justice system is there to serve them, and not just to serve the state.- Adam Mansky, director for criminal justice at the Centre for Court Innovation

At the Red Hook Community Justice Center, operated by the Center for Court Innovation, defendants are connected with social workers who assess their needs and help them figure out what to do next, according to the centre's criminal justice director Adam Mansky.

"It could be mental health counselling, it could be drug treatment, could be job training, could be helping them straighten out their ID or their insurance," said Mansky.

"We want the community to understand that the justice system is there to serve them, and not just to serve the state."

In an external evaluation by the Center for State Courts, Mansky said the Red Hook centre achieved its goals 'on all counts.'

The Red Hook Community Justice Center has reduced crime and given people in the community more faith in the justice system, says Adam Mansky. (Submitted)

Researchers found that offenders were less likely to reoffend, that the centre reduced crime nearby and that it saved millions of dollars every year.

Most meaningful of all, the evaluation found that people in the community saw the centre as advocating on their behalf, Mansky said.

"It's the way I believe any good court should operate, with these basic principles focusing on making incarceration the option of last resort, focusing on the way people are treated in the courthouse and ensuring that there's a nexus between justice and the community."