'We know this is better for kids': Toronto police launch program to keep youth out of court system

Toronto police say they have created a new program for young people facing minor charges in the hopes of helping them make better choices.

Officers to direct certain young people, facing minor charges, to community agencies

Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders says the new Youth Pre-Charge Diversion Program could turn a young person's life around. (CBC)

Toronto police say they have created a new program for young people facing minor charges in the hopes of helping them make better choices.

Young people, who give their consent to take part in the Youth Pre-Charge Diversion Program, will work with community agencies rather than face criminal charges. However, they could face a charge if they do not complete the program.

The program, which launched this week, will provide "much needed" counselling to young people who find themselves in conflict with the law, police told reporters. The option will be primarily available for those about to be charged with minor offences such as theft.

Through the program, police officers will identify young people who may need extra guidance and will direct them to community agencies that will provide them with support. It has already had eight referrals to agencies.

Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders said the program could turn around a young person's life and "break the cycle" of criminal behaviour.

"This program allows the service to identify young people who may be better served by community programs rather than criminal charges. Particularly in the area of less serious offences, it may be more effective to divert a young person away from the traditional means of prosecution."

"Often the most effective service is better delivered in partnership with community experts rather than police alone," Saunders said at police headquarters. 
Paul Wheeler, Toronto region director of Ontario's ministry of children and youth services, says: 'The more we are able to divert kids appropriately with minor or first time offences out of the courts, the more effectively we are able to use existing court resources.' (CBC)

Paul Wheeler, a Toronto region director at Ontario's ministry of children and youth services, said the ministry helped develop the program, which he called "important." He said the "extra-judicial" initiative is part of a larger community effort to prevent youth crime in Toronto.

He said the criminal justice system holds children and youth accountable for their actions, but that response should be in proportion to the seriousness of "their offending behaviour," and the program will divert children and youth out of the court system when appropriate.

"We know this is better for kids insofar as the response is more timely and we know that early-focused intervention, based on an assessment of the needs of young people, increases their chances for better outcomes." 
Coun. Joe Cressy, left, and Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders, right, answer questions from reporters. (CBC)

Data from the program will help police to understand young people charged with minor crimes better and to plan for their needs, he said.

Coun. Joe Cressy, youth equity advocate for the city, said the program helps develop the potential of young people. Enforcement and prevention go hand in hand, he said, and it will lead to young people leading healthier lives.

"This is a huge deal for the city of Toronto."

"For at-risk youth, that first charge can be tipping point. That first charge for a minor offence can lead and it can spiral to a life of crime, where the next charge may be more serious," Cressy said. 

"Or that first charge can be a tipping point in the other direction. It can be an opportunity to engage with the community around you, where you have to take responsibility."

The program will enable young people to take anger management courses or to obtain alcohol and drug addiction counselling, police said.