Mother, experts concerned new 'super courthouse' won't support youth in trouble

It'll be Toronto's new glass office tower of justice, a modernized building for both youth and adult court cases, but some worry it could have a negative effect on young people in trouble with the law.

All current youth courthouses will close and move to new building downtown

Toronto is set to have a new downtown courthouse by the spring of 2022. But there are concerns about eliminating smaller family courts in favour of one mega-facility. (Infrastructure Ontario)

A mother whose son has been in trouble with the law is just one of the people worried the new "super courthouse" planned for Toronto won't be able to support young people at-risk and help rehabilitate them.

CBC Toronto has agreed not to use her name to protect her son's identity. He is facing charges under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which places a publication ban on the names of youths charged.

"I fear with amalgamation, you're going to have staff used to dealing with hardened, older criminals," she said in an interview at her downtown Toronto home. 

"I don't know if they're going to be able to switch it off from, 'Okay, I'm dealing with a 25-year-old man' to 'I'm dealing with a 17-year-old child.'"

An artistic rendering of the entrance of Toronto's new downtown courthouse. Construction still hasn't begun. (Infrastructure Ontario)

The new courthouse, set to open in 2022 on Armoury Street near City Hall, will be Toronto's glass tower of justice, a modern building for youth and adult court cases with improved technology. But some worry a specialized attention to youth cases will be lost.

'Hub for rehabilitation' will close

Once that courthouse opens, youth cases now heard in three courthouses across the city (2201 Finch Ave. W., 1911 Eglinton Ave. E. and 311 Jarvis St.) will all be re-located there. 

The current downtown Jarvis Street location focuses solely on youth matters and also houses other supports for youth, such as non-profit organizations and psychiatrists, aimed at steering them away from a life of crime.

"I would call it a hub for rehabilitation," the mother said.

She says she's seen changes in her son since he started attending weekly support sessions at the Jarvis Street courthouse offered by the non-profit group Peacebuilders, one of a number of community groups with an office at the courthouse.

Rival gangs in one courthouse

Peacebuilders' executive director Elisha Muskat says at the smaller youth court building, staff work together in a variety of ways to minimize potential conflicts between young people, such as scheduling accused youth from rival neighbourhoods on different days.

She's not convinced a larger courthouse would have that flexibility.

Elisha Muskat, executive director of Peacebuilders, worries that a large new courthouse building will look beautiful but won't help young people in need of support and rehabilitation. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

 "Youth that we work with say that they'd be reluctant to show up at their court date if they know that youth from other neighbourhoods are going to be there," Muskat explained.

"Sometimes it's talked about as gangs; sometimes it's just neighbourhood affiliation and youth don't feel safe," 

Muskat mourns the loss of a separate facility for young people's issues, replaced with teenagers entering a large courthouse through the same door as adult defendants. 

Roy McMurtry, seen in 2000 when he was Ontario's chief justice, worries youth rehabilitation will be put at risk once Toronto's new courthouse is built. (Canadian Press)

"If we're really supposed to be considering separate spaces and we're thinking about youth justice for the next 30-plus years, this is our opportunity to maintain that important separation."

Youth 'top of mind' with new building

But the Attorney General's Office says in a statement that the needs of everyone involved in the youth system were "top of mind" when choosing the new building's design.

It says there will be more separation for youth in the new building than there is in Toronto's court system now.

With one centralized courthouse, housing youth and adult cases, including mental health, drug treatment and Indigenous People's Courts, the statement says "we will not only increase efficiency, but we will also ensure equal access to services for accused, witnesses and other users of our justice system."

With the anticipated opening of the courthouse still four years away, the Ontario Attorney General's office says the ministry "will continue to work with youth justice participants and advocates on the design for the designated youth areas."

'I think it's a mistake'

Another person raising the alarm about the plans is a well-known name in Ontario justice circles. 

Roy McMurtry is a retired judge and former Ontario attorney general, who even has a youth correctional facility named after him: the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre in Brampton.

"I think this is a mistake, " McMurtry said in a phone interview on moving all youth cases to one building, while closing the city's sole youth-only courthouse.

McMurtry says at the current youth courthouse, all staff are specially trained to work with young people, from security officers to judges.

It's a model he says isn't possible in all cities, due to space considerations, but he doesn't want to see that lost in Toronto.

"We shouldn't allow fiscal efficiency to trump the rehabilitation of young people."

About the Author

Lorenda Reddekopp

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Lorenda reports on national and international news, as well as local stories based in Toronto. She grew up in small-town Saskatchewan and spent three years reporting from Guatemala.