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Canada's First 'Community Court': Can It Help Addicts?

Goal is fast justice, better options for offenders.

By Monte Paulsen 5 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes e-mail and invites respectful comment in the forum below.

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Judge Thomas Gove will preside. Photo by M. Paulsen.

On the morning of Sept. 10, Judge Thomas Gove will hear the first case before B.C.'s newest court. By the end of the day, he hopes to have dispatched a dock full of prisoners to cheap hotel rooms, addiction treatment centres and community service jobs throughout downtown Vancouver.

"Right now, we simply punish people for their crimes," Gove grumbled. "We sentence people as if that's the conclusion of the case. But that's unrealistic for a lot of offenders. When they get out of jail they are still addicted, still mentally disordered, but now they have nowhere to live and no money. Within a few weeks, they're back in the dock on some new charge."

After 18 years on the bench, Judge Gove now aims to do nothing less than simultaneously clean up Vancouver's streets while at the same time reforming B.C.'s sluggish provincial court system.

'Helping you improve your life'

"Now, this is not a social service agency," Gove told The Tyee. "If you're here, you're here because you committed a crime. And you might have to do something you don't want to do, like go to jail, or do community service. But if you come before this court, everyone you meet -- from your defence lawyer who works in the court, through the triage team, the prosecutor and the judge -- we are all interested in helping you improve your life."

But Judge Gove, his supporters, and his critics all agree that Vancouver's new Downtown Community Court will only achieve its lofty goals if the province provides enough addiction treatment, mental health care and supportive social housing to handle the new court's estimated caseload of 1,500 cases a year.

"Vancouver's crime problem is fuelled by Vancouver's drug problem," said Constable Tim Fanning, who speaks for the Vancouver Police Department. "Everybody who works down there knows that the lack of drug treatment and the lack of care for people with mental health issues is the issue."

"The first hundred people through the community court, maybe even the first 500, may be able to find housing in the province's recently purchased residential hotels, or the new rooms slated to open before 2010," agreed activist attorney David Eby of Pivot Legal Society. "What do we do when the housing runs out?"

Gove, whose new court is scheduled to be feted this weekend amid much ministerial fanfare, shared those concerns.

"We have to have our government continue its stated commitment to providing supportive housing, as well as other housing for people who happen to be poor but don't need the support. We have to have more addiction treatment programs, along with better ways of dealing with the mentally disordered," Gove said.

"I think there is a commitment now," Gove said. "One could be very cynical as to why there's a commitment now. But there is a commitment."

A very downtown court

The new court occupies two floors of the former remand centre at 211 Gore Ave., in the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Survival-level sex workers stroll the sidewalk across the street from the court's new arched entryway, and several of the city's most renowned drug hotels huddle within a three-block radius.

Community courts originated in the United States, and were widely credited with aiding the dramatic reduction of New York City's street-level drug trade. B.C.'s newest court is modelled on the New York courts, as well as more similar courts now operating in England, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere. The province budgeted $5.6 million to renovate the Gore Avenue building, and plans to spend $4.38 million on operations in 2008-2009.

Gove is the presiding judge. He worked as a criminal defence attorney for 16 years before being named to the provincial bench in 1990. In 1994 and 1995, he conducted the Gove Inquiry into Child Protection, which resulted in changes to B.C.'s child welfare system. Judge David Pendleton will also sit in the new court.

The Downtown Community Court will hear cases involving offences committed in the area bordered by Clark Drive to the east, Great Northern Way to the south, and the waterfront. Where accused offenders reside is not a consideration, so the overzealous partiers from West Van will share the dock with homeless drug addicts.

The court will meet four days a week to consider offences including causing a disturbance, driving while prohibited, aggressive panhandling, shoplifting and drug possession. Gove said that these and similar offences "amount to probably upwards of 80 per cent of all the offences committed in downtown Vancouver."

Fast turnaround the goal

"We're trying to change the legal culture that exists in the criminal courts today," Gove said. "The constant adjourning of cases, the not being prepared to fish or cut bait. I don't think lawyers, judges or prosecutors would justify these endless delays as a good thing. But it's the way things have always been done."

Speedy justice is as central to the new court's mission as the provision of housing and health services.

"Keep in mind that most of the people who are charged with the offences we are talking about end up pleading guilty," Gove explained. "But often it's a year away, after they've failed to appear half a dozen times and spent 37 days in jail on remand."

For example: "A guy is caught carrying a large television out of the front door of London Drugs."

First he applies for legal aid, which typically requires three court appearances over a two month period. If he gets accepted, his new lawyer will typically ask for another adjournment so that he can learn the facts of the case.

"It doesn't matter that the facts are there in the courtroom," Gove complained, "and could be read in 10 seconds: So-and-so was seen walking out of the store with a television. We have a videotape of the incident. We have a TV with his prints on it."

More adjournments ensue.

"So the case is adjourned for another two weeks. Then the accused misses his appointment with his attorney -- these guys don't have day timers -- then the attorney has a scheduling conflict with another case. Then the accused misses his court date. A warrant is issued. And eventually, he winds up before the court -- quite often because he was picked up for another crime -- and, lo and behold, a year later, he pleads guilty."

Judge Gove threw up his hands to emphasize his frustration with the process.

"We're going to try to get that guy in and out of court in a day," he said.

A lawyer at the door

A court-appointed defence lawyer will sit down with every suspect brought into the new court.

"That defence lawyer's first job will be to explain to the individual how community court works," Gove said.

If the accused chooses to be represented by that attorney, the two would then review the Crown's case. If the accused is open to considering a guilty plea, he or she would be asked for consent to be interviewed by the triage team.

"We're taking that approach, of consent, which is not the same model seen elsewhere," Gove said. "I think it's more in keeping with our tradition that we don't interview people and gain information about them unless they agree."

A probation officer will interview the accused for about 15 minutes, and fill out a questionnaire.

That information will be provided to the triage team, which will consist of staff members from local agencies such as Vancouver Coastal Health, Forensic Psychiatric Service Commission, BC Housing and the Ministry of Housing and Social Development. If the accused has a First Nations background, a representative from the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of British Columbia would also be part of the team.

"Those folks will use their own databases to find out if this person is in their various systems," Gove said.

The data remains compartmentalized. "The probation officer doesn't get to look at the Coastal Health data," Gove said. "We're not interested in finding out what they guy's medical history is.... What we want to know is, 'Is this person already in a program somewhere?'"

For every case, a plan

Gove offered an example: "We might find out that a guy is a patient of the Strathcona Mental Health Team. We might find out that he normally goes in twice a month for his injections, but that he missed the last appointment. That might help us understand why he caused a disturbance and broke a window in a building."

The triage team then proposes a plan for the accused. That plan would include both items that might be included in sentencing, and items that would merely be strong suggestions -- such as applying for public assistance, with the help of an on-site ministry caseworker, while awaiting trial.

"The triage team's plan will be given to the Crown and to the defence," Gove said. "The defence lawyer will go back to the accused and say, 'If you plead guilty today, this is what's being proposed.'

"The person can still back out," Gove said. "They could say, 'No, I'd rather take my chances and have a trial.'" The defense lawyer and the Crown prosecutor could also haggle at this juncture.

"The person is then arraigned. If the accused pleads guilty, the Crown gives me its position on sentencing, which most times will reflect the plan," Gove said.

Creative sentencing key

Sentences imposed by the Downtown Community Court will be no different than those imposed in other provincial courts, except that most offenders will be given community services.

"We want community service to be more meaningful than perhaps it has been in the past," Gove said. "We also want it to be done very quickly. In the ideal case, a person might be sentenced at 10 o'clock in the morning and might be doing community service at one o'clock that afternoon."

Gove said he plans to use community service to nudge offenders into exploring life choices they might otherwise resist.

"Let's say you've got a guy who clearly has a drug addiction, but is not prepared to consider treatment," Gove explained. "We have negotiated for people to do community service in the kitchens of a number of detox and drug recovery centres. We don't care what work he does there. We want him to be there, and if he then says, 'I think this can help me,' we'll help him negotiate for placement. But that won't be part of his court order."

'To the well'

Gove believes that this "lead him to the well" approach will gradually open doors for repeat offenders.

"Being arrested for a crime, for most people, even for people who have been around this block a few times, is a crisis," Gove said. "It's especially a crisis for a drug addict, because now you are going to go through some pain. So we believe that's a time you can get people to reflect on their future."

Gove said the timing is right for this initiative.

"Now, if we were coming on stream with this project at a time when nothing else was happening, I would be very concerned about how successful it can be. But as we know, over the last year, the government has purchased of a lot of hotels in downtown Vancouver. Also, the city basically gave the province 15 properties on which to building up to 2,200 new units," Gove added. "It will take some years to do that. But we're going in the right direction."

But others point out the number of community court cases will far outstrip the supply of low-income housing and other support (see sidebar).

How will cops, criminals react?

Lawyer David Eby raised concerns about how both police and offenders would react to the new landscape created by the court.

"If beat officers figure 'I can house this person by arresting them,' arrest rates will go through the roof, the limited resources of the court will be overwhelmed and the homeless will be housed in jail at incredible expense," Eby said.

Likewise, Eby warned, "If people in the community learn that those going through the community court get preferential access to housing, welfare and drug treatment, the court may accidentally create a perverse incentive to commit crimes. I've had many desperate clients tell me that they were thinking about committing property crimes to get indoors and get three square meals in jail."

Constable Fanning said the Vancouver Police Department will not change tactics in response to the new court.

'How the hell...?'

"I'm an idealist. But I'm not naïve," Gove said. "On the first day, I can't say that we're going to be perfect, but we'll be an awful lot closer to perfect than we are today because we have on our team all these assessment people."

When asked what his own goals were for the new court, Gove looked out his office window and replied with a question.

"I was born in Vancouver. This is my city. What I see out there is absolutely tragic. How the hell did we ever let it get this bad?"

"In five years," Gove continued, "I want to be able to walk out of the Gore Avenue entrance to this courthouse, walk down Hastings all the way to Victory Square, and not feel the anger and the pain I feel today. If I can do that within the next three or four years, then I know we've been successful."

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