When 42 Division officers arrested a teenager a few years ago, for shoplifting at a local Walmart, they chose to refer her to Operation Springboard instead of laying charges.
The organization, among other things, offers a number of effective programs for youths aged 12-17 who are involved at various stages of the criminal justice system.
“During the interview process, we learned that this 17-year-old was a single mother who stole some diapers because she couldn’t afford to buy them,” said Operation Springboard Executive Director Marg Stanowski. “She needed support as a young mother, so we got her to a resource centre that provided support and then to an employment agency. Her criminal activity was behind her after those things were put in place for her.”
Stanowski and representatives from other community agencies joined Chief Mark Saunders and representatives from the City of Toronto and the Ministry of Children & Youth Services for the launch of the Toronto Police Service city-wide youth pre-charge diversion program at police headquarters on June 20.
Stanowski said research shows that pre-diversion programs work.
“The evidence clearly points to the fact that, when you reach young people early and provide swift consequences for their actions, they are less likely to escalate into criminal activity,” she said. “So, in programs like this, police use appropriate discretion to identify youths who typically are involved in minor criminal activity. Instead of charging them, they will make a direct referral to a community agency like Operation Springboard.”
Over the years, some police Divisions independently partnered with local community agencies to provide intervention programs.
42 Division partnered with Operation Springboard, 41 and 43 Divisions teamed up with the West Scarborough Centre, 23 Division has a good working relationship with Albion Neighbourhood Services, 51 Division collaborated with the Salvation Army and 31 and 14 Divisions aligned with Associated Youth Services of Peel and St. Stephen’s Community House & Employment Training Centre, respectively.
Jabari Lindsay, a longtime social worker and Manager of Youth Development at the City of Toronto, helped make the city-wide program a reality.
“I grew up in Peel where the Associated Youth Services of Peel ran a diversion program which I helped with,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for a second chance and it gives those young people who have made a dumb mistake a chance to redeem themselves.”
The TPS is partnering with the Ministry of Children & Youth Services and the City of Toronto to run the program.
“Often, it’s collaborations like this that can lead to successful outcomes,” said Chief Mark Saunders. The Service charges approximately 4,000 young people each year and divert about 55 per cent from criminal charges.
Paul Wheeler, the Ministry of Children & Youth Services Toronto Region director, said his organization is happy to enter into the partnership.
“This work closely aligns with our work and the approach that we take,” he said. “Certainly, having more pre-charge options to police will enable them, when they deem appropriate, to divert youths to community-based programs and services rather than proceeding through the courts. We know that this is better for kids in so far as the responses. It is more timely and we know that early focused intervention based on the assessment and needs of young people increases their chances for better outcomes. The more we are able to appropriately divert kids with minor or first-time offences away from the courts, the more effectively we are able to use existing court services.”
Councillor Joe Cressy said the youth pre-charge diversion program is a critical crime-prevention and youth-development tool.
“For at-risk youth, that first charge could be a tipping point,” he said. “The offender can either spiral into a life of crime, where the next charge may be more serious, or it can be an opportunity to engage with the community around you and take responsibility for your actions.”
For the last 11 years, Peacebuilders has run a restorative justice court diversion program at the Ontario Court of Justice building at 311 Jarvis St.
“Our program allows us to sit down and spend time with youths to understand their actions,” said executive director Elisha Muskat. “We sit in a circle where everyone is an equal player at the table and we all share and contribute with honesty, courage and values of inclusivity.”