Alternative sentencing programs for aboriginals in demand after new youth law

It's the darker side of weekend revelry that makes Mondays busy at youth court, so that's when Jason Burnstick can be found in a downtown courtroom "fishing for clients." He's got a few criteria. The youth he wants must be deemed by the courts to be more suited for community programs like probation, not custody, which means they're usually first-time offenders arrested for non-violent crimes. And they must be aboriginal because the program at Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services where Burnstick works is designed specifically for them.

�The idea is healing and re-integration, not punishment,� the soft-spoken 30-year-old says of the program's philosophy.

At its core � both physically and spiritually � is the circle. The circle is deeply embedded in aboriginal justice traditions. And it's in a circle where the young offender will eventually sit and face the music, explaining their actions to First Nations elders, parents, and victims, then listening to how they've affected the others. It's in that circle too, Burnstick says, where healing begins.

Alternative sentencing programs like these are in demand, their popularity rising with the realization that tougher laws do little to make the streets safer and that locking people up is simply not an effective way to cut crime, particularly for those criminals who haven't had time to harden.

That idea got the official nod when the Youth Criminal Justice Act replaced the Young Offenders' Act in April last year. Its key objective to increase the use of non-court methods to deal with youth who commit less serious crimes. Barry Warhaft, director of the Vancouver program, says the idea is to bring people �together in a safe way to have a difficult conversation.
�What's more difficult: to report to a probation officer every six months, or to face the victim and take a look inside at what's wrong?�

The national youth incarceration rate has declined steadily since it peaked in the mid-1990s. With the new act only a year old, its role in rate declines remains unclear. It has, though, shone a spotlight on alternative sentencing, and caused the police and courts to give them more consideration when dealing with young offenders.

�The main thrust of the YCJA is to assure that custody is the last resort for young offenders,� says B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant.

�The reason for that could be put pretty simply � what happens to young people when they're put in jail is they turn into adult criminals.�

As National Aboriginal Day dawns Monday, the statistics for aboriginal youth remain depressing. Aboriginals account for about five per cent of the youth population in Canada, but about one in four youth sentenced to custody are aboriginal, according to 2002 Statistics Canada figures, the most recent available. The problem gets worse in the Western provinces and territories with larger aboriginal populations � in Saskatchewan and Manitoba alone, aboriginal youth account for over 75 per cent of those in youth custody.

Community-based justice programs are one way aboriginal communities and governments are cooperating to deal with the problem. Today, 90 of these programs are jointly funded by the federal and provincial governments under the Aboriginal Justice Strategy, designed in 1996 to respond to aboriginal communities' desire for more control over their own justice issues. The Sto:lo Nation in Chilliwack operates one such program.

�There is a huge spiritual component to every circle that we hold," says Wenona Victor, a member of the Sto:lo Nation who, as a Simon Fraser University criminologist, studied First Nations traditional justice methods.
�The idea is reconnecting people to their family responsibilities, to their community responsibilities. The deal is to restore the peace and harmony.�

The program has been well received by the community, she says, with over 500 healing circles completed since it began in 1999. Other First Nations communities from as far away as Alberta have shown interest in the process too, she says. But while empowering aboriginal communities to deal with their own justice issues is important, she says, �it's not the end-all answer for sure.�

Victor believes the solution to too many aboriginals in the criminal system goes deeper than sentencing issues.

Plant agrees.

�The fundamental reason for aboriginal over-representation in the criminal justice system is because � tragically � aboriginal young people experience far more of the general conditions that lead to criminal behaviour than the rest of society,� says the attorney general, listing factors like poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence and poor health.

The legacy of colonization and residential schools has also alienated some youth from their communities and culture, says Omar Kassis, an educator at Young Eagle's Healing Lodge, a Vancouver residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for aboriginal youth. Programs that are culturally relevant are important, says Kassis, because they attempt to �fix the root problem of criminal activity, which is that people make choices unaware of the effect that they have on the community and unaware even of the fact that they belong to that community.�

Fostering that connection is exactly why community-based justice programs are so powerful, agrees Burnstick.
�I can't say enough about the power of culture � I can't,� he says. �When there's the elder present, that's the teeth in the whole forum. It's just huge.�

2 July 2004

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