The Downtown Community and Drug Treatment Courts

The reason this blog has been blessed with the privilege of sustaining two posts in their entirety within a week is because I’m extremely enthusiastic about having the marvelous opportunity to visit the Provincial Court of British Columbia and Downtown Community Court with some fellow volunteers and staff of the John Howard Society of British Columbia. I arrived early in the morning which allowed me to spend some time loitering around Gastown (which I haven’t seen since Christmas)- it’s my favourite part of Vancouver, I had to mention it. I arrived at the courthouse and an introduction was provided by a representative of the Justice Education Society who gave us a quick rundown of the criminal justice system in the province (echoes of my criminology days) and the different types of cases heard in the provincial court, community court and drug treatment court respectively.

The Downtown Community Court

At its core, the community court is about partnership and problem solving. It’s about creating new relationships, both within the justice system and with health and social services, community organizations, area residents, merchants, faith communities and schools… The community court is about testing new ways to reduce crime and improve public safety. It deals with offenders more quickly through a more co-ordinated and informed response.

This court is located on the backside of the provincial court, although through a separate entrance. There is definitely an advantage to being located so close to Main Street and I couldn’t help but notice the symbolic significance of this layout- it serves as an informal, backdoor way of dealing with repeat offenders who are wrought with problematic histories which often include mental illness and drug addiction. As our JES representative pressed, many of these individuals ended up being charged for theft of petty items such as cheese- which have a high resale value (reference to the low-cost pizza slice outlets scattered over the downtown core). A justice system that treats them like cookie-cutter criminals would be detrimental to their well-being along with that of the general public especially taking into consideration the systemic problems that are prevalent around the area. Hence, the community court. A somewhat-casual court system that complies with its rules but promotes an understanding, harm-reduction response to such crimes.

We were lucky enough to visit while the court was presided by the Honourable Judge Thomas Gove, who initially proposed the creation of the court in Vancouver. Seeing him call up the accused and communicate directly to them was remarkable to see. There’s no doubt that this courtroom maintained a supportive and accessible atmosphere. I cringe at the thought of how an old, mentally ill panhandler would have fared in regular court. While we did notice how ‘disorganized’ the court seemed, we all agreed that it was well suited the area it served where restricted time slots and airtight rules would only result in further unnecessary legal ramifications for an already marginalized population.

More information about the process can be found here along with some helpful videos that give you the gist of how the court works.

The Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver

The drug treatment court is a model that has proved to work miles in helping drug addicted offenders recover effectively (see here). It is used worldwide and I was surprised to learn that it carried the support of the current federal government. This probably the most remarkable thing I’ve heard today, but, as one of the lawyers (who kindly consented to being barraged with our questions) asserted, the science is practically unwavering.

The court seemed more of a pep rally than actual proceedings but this shouldn’t be mistaken as being lenient on offenders. Judge Dillon emphasized that rehabilitation and recovery is an immensely demanding process and requires considerable sacrifice (which is monitored by way of frequent drug tests and stringent conditions). The prosecutor determines selection criteria and only a few individuals are permitted into this program which requires weekly court visits and is bolstered by rewards and praise for compliance. Crown counsel and defense collaborate to create a workable action plan for the accused and most of the decisions are made in a pretrial meeting between the counsel, judge and various case workers since hearing the occasional negative feedback could prove to be detrimental to the recovery of the individual who is encouraged to consider the members of the court as allies.

The best part of the experience was seeing how, even while sitting in an adversarial system, all the counsel in the drug treatment and community courts seemed to work together to devise practical solutions.

Aside from my own observations, more information about this court can be found here.

We also managed to sit in on a robbery case and talk to some industrious Native Court Workers who described the challenges faced by aboriginal offenders and the alternative justice measures that have been put into place in order to take their circumstances into account. I’m a large supporter of restorative justice so this element of the dialogue was very interesting to me- especially when she revealed the existence of a specialized First Nations court (guess who wants to drop by for a visit?)

Overall, I was very grateful for the opportunity. It’s quite fascinating to see the things I’ve been reading about put into action. There’s always hope in progressive policy research… and good results too.

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