A new program will standardize how police divert young people from criminal charges across the city in an attempt to reduce recidivism and steer young people away from the criminal justice system.
“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, who is leading the implementation of the program that partners with the province and social agencies and was formally announced on June 20.
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.
Police officers will refer the youth to a Ministry of Children and Youth Services Extra Judicial Measures Coordinator who will refer them to an appropriate social service agency.
At an average, Toronto Police arrest approximately 4,000 youth a year, of whom about 55 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.
Divisional Policing Support Unit Inspector Dave Rydzik said the program standardizes the approach all officers take in diverting youth from charges while keeping a strong notion of accountability.
“We wanted to formalize a process to get youth into effective diversion programs as an alternative to the court process,” Rydzik said. “We believe that by providing youth, who have committed minor offences, with supportive interventions and programming to assist them in accepting responsibility and understanding the impact of their actions on their victims, themselves, their family and the community as a whole.”
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 analyzed on its own… our officers are quite good at realizing what they should do with youth, but 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, whether it be 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. I think 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.”