Why Ontario is expanding rehabilitation-first courts

Click to play video: 'Ontario attorney general explains community justice centres'
Ontario attorney general explains community justice centres
WATCH ABOVE: Speaking to Global News, Ontario's Attorney General Doug Downey explained the concept of community justice centres. New federal funding will allow the province to ramp up the rehabilitation-first approach to crime – Apr 19, 2023

Ontario’s justice system is set to get a cash infusion from the Federal government to dramatically expand new community-based courts in the province – a move that could help cut down on pandemic-induced court backlogs, while adding a more progressive approach to criminal cases.

Global News has confirmed, through an access to information request, that Ottawa has agreed to pay Ontario $11 million over four years to expand four community justice centres in the province and open a fifth.

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Justice said the new “community-driven court model” would help address “poverty, homelessness, addictions and systemic racism within the criminal justice system.”

What is a community justice centre?

Between 2020 and 2022, the Ford government began road testing new rehabilitation-first courtrooms in Toronto, Kenora and London that integrated justice, health and social services in the same place.

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The system aims to have judges, crown attorneys and police officers work with health, mental health and housing specialists to “provide holistic wrap-around services for vulnerable accused persons,” according to provincial documents.

The progressive approach to criminal justice, government documents indicated, is designed to address the root causes of crime.

It is an idea that Doug Downey, Ontario’s attorney general, told Global News originated in New Jersey.

“They’re an ability to meet people where they’re at and trying to provide the services in the place where they need them to help deal with the issues that cause them to be in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Currently, the government describes Ontario’s court system as a “revolving door for offenders” whose life circumstances “including mental illness, poverty, inter-generational trauma, systemic racism and [drug] and alcohol addiction” leave them constantly ensnared in the law.

“The justice system — on its own — is failing to address the underlying factors of criminality,” a provincial document states. “The justice system is over-reliant on incarceration and custody.”

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In contrast, the Ford government said, community justice centres are needed “to provide a circuit-breaker in the lives of those who have become justice-involved through systemic racism, under-privilege and disadvantage.”

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Request for expansion

The frank revelations about the province’s views on the current criminal justice system were included in a grant application written by Ontario’s Attorney General in 2022, when his office asked the federal government for funding to ramp up community justice centres.

The application, as well as the approval from Ottawa, were obtained by Global News through federal access to information laws.

The federal funding will allow Ontario to run its existing justice centres five days per week, instead of just one — an operating increase of 400 per cent – while opening a new site in Barrie, Ont.

The application indicated the increase could have a major impact on both the fairness of the justice system and to reduce court backlogs.

By increasing the number of days from one to five, provincial officials estimate up to 25 per cent of cases could be diverted away from local courthouses.

“This, in turn, would build capacity in local courthouses to prioritize the prosecution of more serious offences and reduce the number of cases dismissed due to delay caused by the pandemic,” the application said.

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Effect on pandemic-related backlog

Courthouses in the province have been struggling with backlogs and staffing issues for years.

At the local provincial offences courthouse in Mississauga, Ont., for example, prosecutors withdrew 11,000 charges in 2022, according to city officials who said the city’s pandemic backlog has been made worse as a result of a province-wide shortage of justices and excess of cases.

A report by City of Mississauga staff said that, between September and December 2021, 62 courtrooms were closed because there were not enough justices to hear cases. Pressure further up the system, where more serious criminal offences are heard, trickles down to compound that issue.

“If there is a justice that calls in sick or has an issue in the criminal courts or in the bail courts (on) the same day, they will often pull a justice from the (provincial offences) courts,” Shari Lichterman, the city’s current acting CAO, explained to Global News in 2022.

“The pandemic exacerbated it. And because there’s an attempt to catch up on the other levels of court, the (provincial offences) courts are being assigned fewer justices.”

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With the community justice centres in Ontario set to rapidly expand, a weight could lift from criminal courts, reducing strain across the system.

The community justice centres, however, see themselves are more than simply a relief valve for Ontario’s struggling justice system.

“The justice centres weren’t created specifically to deal with the backlog,” Downey said. “They’re an additional resource and by definition being an additional resource are helping.”

The grant application says they can “provide proven blueprints to facilitate expansion and replication of the community court model across the country to facilitate large-scale and nation-wide criminal justice system reform.”

Future expansion plans

Between the winter of 2022 and March 2025, the province will work to expand the existing justice centre pilots to five days per week, the application said.

“There’s calls for more,” Downey said.

The application also repeatedly stresses the importance of working with Indigenous and diverse populations, highlighting their disproportionate interactions with the justice system.

The funding Ontario is set to receive will run until 2026.

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