Calgary's new diversion court will not proceed

A new type of court for Calgary appears to be on hold due to the pandemic.

Coalition blames lack of government resources, pandemic for project stalling out

A new type of Calgary court that could have seen people with mental health and addiction issues diverted from the carceral system won't be going ahead. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

A new type of court for Calgary appears to be on hold due to the pandemic.

Work has been ongoing for the past couple of years on the Calgary Community Court, a diversion court which would aim to help people who are dealing with mental health, addiction, homelessness or trauma.

The idea is to allow Calgarians charged with social disorder offences to find treatment or alternatives to incarceration.

In 2018, city council voted to put $250,000 into preparing a pilot program.

The work has been handled by the Community Justice Collaborative: Calgary (CJCC).

At council's priorities and finance committee on Tuesday, council members heard that work on the project has come to a halt due to a lack of provincial commitment to the court.

Joy Bowen-Eyre with the CJCC told the committee that the city's money helped pay for preparation work on the court to bring it to a state of readiness.

A blueprint was presented to the provincial government with a funding request to operate the new court as a three year pilot project.

Pandemic blamed

She said it appears that with the ongoing pandemic, there is a shortage of money to proceed.

"At this point in time, there is a shortage in resourcing at both the judicial level and the Crown prosecutor level," said Bowen-Eyre. "Once those are resolved, there is a willingness and an appetite."

She presented to the committee information which indicates that the court could save more than $2 million in the first year of operation which would grow to nearly $23 million by the end of the third year.

The province has approved drug treatment courts as alternate ways of dealing with specific types of offenders so she's not giving up hope.

"I believe there is an appetite to doing things differently. It's just that this is not seen as a priority at this particular point in time," said Bowen-Eyre.

Among others, the CCJC includes representatives from the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, Calgary Police Service, Legal Aid Alberta, Native Counselling Services of Alberta and the Provincial Court of Alberta.

'Very disappointing,' says councillor

Given the potential for the court to save time, money and other resources in the existing court system, Coun. Evan Woolley wasn't happy to hear the pilot won't be going ahead.

"This is very disappointing," said Woolley.

"The outcomes for this was win-win-win for everybody. It was taking pressure off the court system, taking pressure off those wanting to fight a ticket."

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he too was sorry to hear the project can't go ahead.

"I am disappointed that the province is not willing to move forward on something that is so critical. We had been calling it mental health court. It's an important part of what we're doing around mental health," said Nenshi.

Council's intergovernmental affairs committee is planning to discuss the issue during its meeting on Thursday.

For now, the unspent city money for the project — a little more than $102,000 — will be returned to the council innovation fund.