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
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
�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
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
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.
�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
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