Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), p. 35-36
In March 2002, a Justice Review Task Force was created to find ways to make the justice system more responsive, accessible and cost effective. One priority of the Justice Review Task Force was to respond to concerns about street crime in Vancouver. People who live and work in Vancouver had been expressing serious concerns about street crime such as open drug use and dealing, auto theft and other property crimes. Some also expressed concern about social disorder, such as public mischief, panhandling, people sleeping in doorways and alleys, and people on the street who appear to have symptoms of mental illness.
In March 2004, the Justice Review Task Force formed the Street Crime Working Group to examine the street crime problem and identify possible solutions to street crime and social disorder in the downtown Vancouver peninsula, bordered on the east by Clark Drive. The 14member Street Crime Working Group included representatives from all levels of government, judges, lawyers, police, and corrections and social service providers.
What the Street Crime Working Group did
The Street Crime Working Group held public consultations, meetings and interviews with Vancouver residents, business owners, police and other justice system staff, and health care and social service providers. The Working Group also reviewed information and statistics from police, courts, and the health care system. The purpose was to find out how much street crime there was in Vancouver, what type of people were committing street crimes, and what could be done to reduce the street crime.
The Street Crime Working Group also heard from people who have mental health problems, those who have drug addictions, and some who have both a mental illness and a drug addiction. These people talked about their experiences with the criminal justice system. Some said they committed crimes to support their drug addiction. Others believed they had committed crimes because their addiction or mental illness caused them to engage in risky or irrational behaviour. Many said they felt that people who work in the justice system do not understand mental illness and addiction issues.
The relationship between chronic offending and health and social challenges
Based on information that the Street Crime Working Group collected from these consultations and from justice and health care statistics, it became clear that many of the ‘chronic’ street crime offenders struggle with health and social problems such as a drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness or homelessness. Chronic offenders are people who have been charged with five or more criminal offences in one year, or have had five or more criminal convictions in the last four years.
The justice system was not designed to deal with health and social problems and generally does not work closely with health and social service systems. Therefore, offenders who have mental health issues or addictions, or who are in need of social supports, often do not receive the treatment and support they need to break their cycle of crime. Since their health and social problems are not being helped, they continue to experience problems that may lead them into trouble with the criminal justice system over and over again.
The Street Crime Working Group’s report was released in October 2005. The report contains recommendations that are aimed at:
Getting justice, health and social services systems to work more closely together
Giving residents, business owners and other community members opportunities to participate in the justice system
Identifying and separating offenders who should be in jail from those who could be helped by treatment, services and supports
The recommendations are focused on Vancouver, but if the recommendations work in Vancouver, they might be considered for other areas of the province.
A ‘community court’ is recommended
One recommendation is to create a community court in Vancouver. A community court is a special type of problem solving court that responds quickly and meaningfully to offenders. A community court:
Involves a judge, prosecutor, defence lawyer, probation officer, community coordinator who acts as a link between the court and the community, and a health coordinator who acts as a link between the court and health services—all working together, and with the community, to find the most effective responses to the crime and the offender
Ensures that the judge has all the necessary information about the offender and the circumstances of the case to make meaningful decisions
Helps offenders connect with a wide range of health and social supports, including drug treatment, mental health services, housing, financial assistance and other supports
How is the community involved in the community court?
The community is involved by:
Participating on the community advisory board and letting the justice system know what their biggest crime concerns are
Identifying the kinds of community work service that offenders could do to help the community
Working with justice, health and social services system staff to develop solutions to street crime related problems
When will the Street Crime Working Group’s recommendations be put into action?
recommendations be put into action? Some of the recommendations have already been put into action. For example, justice and health partners have been working together to develop a coordinated health and justice response to chronic offenders in Vancouver who have mental health or addiction issues.
Many of the recommendations require the cooperation of other partners, such as the police, health and social service agencies, and the community. The Ministry of Attorney General has started meeting with these partners to talk about how the recommendations could be put into practice. These discussions will continue over the next year, as government and nongovernment partners work together to take action against street crime in Vancouver.
About the Author
Sherri Lee is a senior policy analyst with the Criminal Justice Reform Office of the Ministry of Attorney General. Sherri collected statistics, compiled information from consultations, and developed a needs assessment, which informed the Street Crime Working Group’s report, Beyond the Revolving Door.
The report is available online at www.bcjusticereview.org/ working_groups/street_ crime/street_crime.asp