The VALUE of Professional Youth Probation Officers
By Blair Peden, Vernon Integrated Youth Services, Past President of BCPOA
Since 1997, youth justice services have been delivered by the British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) pursuant to recommendations made in a report to government authored by His Honour Judge Tom Gove. As a result of his Provincial Inquiry into a child death (The Gove Report), His Honour recommended the integration of separate, but related child services into one ministry to be delivered under one roof. Government's response was to create MCFD. In Vernon, the Integrated Youth Services office houses 4 Social Workers, 3 Probation Officers, a Restorative Justice Conferencing Facilitator and a Mental Health Clinician, all who work on an Integrated Case Management model. Attached to the office by way of contracts are a psychiatrist, psychologist(s), ChildCare Workers, Street Workers, Family Therapists and a Community Work Service coordinator. If required, we have contractual access to temporary residential resources including the Vernon Women's Transition House, Mara House, Kekuli Centre Safe House, the Kelowna Bail Hostel as well as a number of foster home emergency beds.
For almost a half century, youth justice services have been provided in Vernon by Probation Officers, initially under the Juvenile Delinquents Act, then in 1984 under the Young Offenders Act and, finally, in 2003, under The Youth Criminal Justice Act. While "Alternative Measures" or "Diversion" have been routinely utilized under the first two Acts, the YCJA places an emphasis on those options. The authors of the YCJA noted that the creation of the Act was, in part, designed to force several other provinces to reach the standard set by BC when it comes to alternatives to court and alternatives to custody. It is of significant interest to note that, while the YCJA was created as a response to generalized public concern about the efficacy of the YOA, in each of the 10 years leading up to the YCJA, there was an absolute reduction in youth crime! The net result has been dramatically reduced RCMP charge referrals and a corresponding reduction in Youth Probation caseloads, both Court-ordered and Diversion. Since the implementation of the YCJA, Vernon RCMP referrals to Crown have slowed to a trickle for reasons that are not yet clear.
Under the YCJA, a youth arrested for an offence can be "processed" in a number of different ways. First, the RCMP must be satisfied that the youth is guilty of the alleged offence and that there would be "a reasonable likelihood of conviction" if prosecuted. If that initial test has been met, the RCMP have choices as to how they can direct the file. They can simply issue a "caution" or "warning" to the youth and conclude the matter that way. If the officer feels that the youth requires more accountability than this (but not Court), he or she can recommend that the matter be referred for "Extrajudicial Measures" or "Extrajudicial Sanctions". These options are essentially identical, both providing the youth an alternative to Court. "EJ Measures" can be utilized if there is an authorized "Community Accountability Panel" (CAP) or "Restorative Justice" program in place in ones community. These bodies are composed of community volunteers, who mediate the offence by way of a scripted panel hearing, which involves as many of the parties to the offence as are willing to participate. The youth and his/her parents must agree to appear before this panel to qualify for "EJ Measures". Once chosen as an option, the RCMP lose the ability to forward the matter to Court for prosecution if the youth fails to comply with any agreements resulting from the panel process.
Alternatively, the RCMP can choose to recommend "Extrajudicial Sanctions". This involves the extra work of preparing a "Report to Crown Counsel". Crown will review the report to ensure a charge is warranted. Once a charge is approved, they can either set it for Court or refer it to the Youth Probation office for consideration of "EJ Sanctions". Upon such a referral, a PO will typically contact the youth's parents to obtain a social history and to discuss any concerns they may have regarding their child's offence or behavior in general. The PO also consults with the victim to solicit information regarding possible loss, damage as well as their opinion about the propriety of diverting this case from Court. Contacts are also made with relevant professionals such as schools, counselors, doctors, employers etc to develop an understanding of the youths overall functioning. Ultimately a meeting is held with the youth and his/her parent(s) where matters are confidentially discussed and a tentative agreement worked out. If appropriate, a Restorative Conference conducted by the Specialist and/or the PO can be arranged at this point. EJ Sanction Agreements can include work service, either directly for the victim or for the community, restitution, written or verbal apologies, victim/offender reconciliation, mandatory counseling etc. In addition, these youths can be supervised for up to 6 months by a PO - daily if necessary -and partake in the contracted services mentioned above. A youth who fails to adequately comply with the terms of this "EJ Sanctions" Agreement can be prosecuted for the originating offence at the discretion of Crown Counsel. Enforcement capacity is not lost for those youth who abuse the opportunity to be diverted from the formal court process.
Once a case has been scheduled for Court, Probation Officers play an integral role in assisting the Provincial Court Judiciary in determining a balanced and constructive resolution of the offending behavior. POs prepare Pre-Bail Reports and supervise youths who have been released from custody on Bail Orders. Between the date of their release and the date of sentencing, POs both supervise and support the youth and their parents, as well as enforce compliance with the Bail terms, much as any conscientious parent would do in managing their own child's behavior. At the request of the Court, a PO will prepare a Pre Sentence Report which at times may require the facilitation of comprehensive psychiatric and/or psychological assessments being prepared to further assist the Sentencing Judge in striking a constructive sentencing balance between the special needs of the child and the communities right to be protected from his or her criminal behavior. Most sentences include a period of Probation, which can include all of the "EJ" conditions and many more on Orders that can span 2 years. Circumstances, however, sometimes require that a youth be removed from the community. BC has clearly led the way in developing constructive alternatives to custody, which results in many youth attending community-based Residential Attendance Programs as an alternative to serving terms of incarceration. These programs include intensive life skills training, alcohol and drug treatment and outward-bound programming of up to 6 months duration. All programs are ultimately designed to enhance the youth's sense of social awareness and personal self-worth. If incarceration is required, BC, again, is generally acknowledged as a national leader in therapeutic institutional programming.
In summary, the MCFD is proud of the youth justice services it provides in this province and this community. Far from the"Trail them, Nail them, Jail them" characterization promoted by the formal systems detractors, Probation Officers in BC have pioneered many of the above criminal justice innovations including Victim/Offender Reconciliation, now known as "Restorative Justice". Far from being the heartless enforcement clerks this characterization implies, POs have a proud history of being many disadvantaged youths primary mentors, supporters, and coaches for years at a time. Alternatives to court or custody are not new concepts. They have been practiced in BC for decades with obvious success. One of the big problems with youth crime is that it involves youth, children with sometimes-limited social awareness or maturity. Often the commission of a criminal offence is a youth's primitive cry for help and, just as often, the proverbial tip of an emotionally unbalanced iceberg. The "roots" of crime can be deep and complex. Physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, depression, FASD, ADHD, mental illness, dysfunctional upbringings, substance abuse, negative peer pressure etc., etc., can all contribute to the commission of criminal acts. While Probation Officers can recognize that attendance in front of a large group of strangers in a Restorative Justice Circle or CAP hearing can be tremendously therapeutic for some youth and their victims, there are large percentages of young offenders and their families who need and deserve a more sensitive approach to the problems that cause them to come into conflict with the law. Either way, be it all-inclusive Restorative Conferences or less-intrusive one to one "EJ Sanctions" investigations, MCFD Probation Officers can employ an approach that best fits the circumstances and needs of individual cases.