A new program aims to standardize how police divert young people from criminal charges across the city, in an attempt to reduce recidivism.
“Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, one of the onuses of a police officer is that, when they are dealing with a youth 12 to 17 who has committed a criminal offense, they will consider certain options prior to laying charges” says Detective Stella Karras, leading the implementation of the program still in its planning stages.
She said officers have the opportunity to lay a charge, give youth a formal warning, or refer the young person to a diversion program.
“It can be anything from writing a letter of apology, or a justice circle with the victim and offender, to an anger-management class,” says Karras, of what may be required of the offender to avoid criminal charges. A justice circle would give a victim the opportunity to confront the offender and let them know how the crime affected them, while giving the offender the opportunity to apologize – something not guaranteed in a courtroom.
At an average, Toronto Police arrest around 3,000 youth a year, of which 35 per cent are not charged.
Some are given a warning, while others are sent to diversion programs at a local level.
In Karras’s experience with previous local divisional programs, it was unlikely for a young person not to complete their program and be charged.
“There was a 97 per cent completion rate,” she says.
A trained youth worker will hopefully get to an underlying cause and then direct them to a program that will help them and, ultimately, stop them from reoffending.
Inspector Dave Saunders said attempting to steer youth away from repeating the offence is the goal.
“I think it is an opportunity to, at an early stage look, at minor offending and look at if it’s the best course of action or is there a better solution in the community. Often what we find in a well-constructed program is that there are better ways to resolve that kind of behaviour and have consequences that are substantial if you go through the diversion program versus the courts,” said Saunders.
The program will also take the burden off the court system, as well as bring the case to a solution quickly so everyone can move forward, victim and offender included.
Karras said it’s another tool for officers.
“We want each circumstance to be analysed on its own… our officers are quite good at realizing what they should do with youth, but this (the diversion program) gives them another option,” said Karras.
Karras says offenders will also benefit from being referred to a youth worker who can assess any underlying problems that may be leading youth to commit criminal acts such as, for example, a mental illness or lack of housing.
“A trained youth worker will hopefully get to an underlying cause and then direct them to a program that will help them and, ultimately, stop them from reoffending,” she said.
“It is all about getting an early intervention when youth are at their most vulnerable and impressionable. I think we need to understand that a lot of youth do things just because of peer pressure. I don’t think the inside of a court room is the best place for them to be, in some circumstances. Maybe sitting down or doing some community work or listening to how this affected their victim would be a better, positive, learning experience for them.”