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Youth Justice

In the mid 1980s, aboriginal groups in Saskatchewan were asking to put their wayward youth through their traditional system of justice where the community tries and rehabilitates the accused. Their contention was that the European court system didn’t work well in their communities.

The critics, mostly officials in the justice system, were quick to denounce this suggestion. Their reasons were it would involve two systems of law; law is too complicated for ordinary people to understand; and the aboriginal communities were not mature enough to handle criminal issues. I will concede that I did agree with these officials at that time, but I thought the aboriginal model might be an interesting social experiment.

The justice bureaucracy eventually relented for two reasons. In 1992, they did try aboriginal sentencing circles in Fort Chipewyan, a northern Alberta town that is so isolated that another justice system could be experimented without interfering with the European model too much. The results: much better justice was served when the community became involved in the decision. Recidivism was lower, and offenders had more respect for decision given to them.

The second reason for the change of heart was the budget cutbacks. Lower budgets hit prosecution departments, and they had fewer resources to administer justice. They started prosecuting small youth crimes by sending offenders a letter of reprimand instead of forcing them into court. Many of these youth scoffed at such a punishment and took it to mean they could continue with their wayward ways. The situation was getting out of hand.

The Alberta government looked at the Fort Chipewyan example and decided to create a similar model for its “European” society. Volunteers would administer the cases, hear the trials, sentence the offenders, and administer their punishment. I joined the High River Youth Justice committee in 1997, and we heard cases of youth who admitted their guilt.

We had four types of youth go through our system. The first were youth that were sooner or later going to jail; our purpose was to prove to society that these people cannot be rehabilitated and need to be locked up. The second group very reluctantly obeyed our sentences and continued with a somewhat risky lifestyle. But our involvement was part of their eventual maturation into responsible citizens. The third group were already rehabilitated before they got to us—the parents, the police, and the embarrassment were enough hassle to make them not to want to do crime again. And sometimes we got a youth was on an edge of what kind of life he or she would be leading. I think we were more effective at influencing this youth than a judge, prosecutor, and defence lawyer.

Every time we heard a case, I estimate we volunteers saved the Alberta taxpayer $1000.

When I first started, our overseer from the justice department said that we would only be hearing cases of petty theft and vandalism. The regular court system would handle all other crimes. Three years later, our group was handling alcohol and drug infractions, theft over $5000, and assaults. I think we got these extra responsibilities because we were good at administering justice and the prosecution wanted to direct more of their resources towards their more difficult cases.

Strange: 15 years ago the experts said it was impossible for non-professionals to be involved in our legal system. I wonder what the future is.

Copyright 2000 by Dave Volek

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© 2009 Dave Volek. All Rights Reserved.