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A new kind of court
Editor's note: The name Jeannine is a pseudonym to protect the individual's identity.
The run-ins with police amounted to about 400 in about two months. Jeannine was in and out of the hospital and jail. She called the streets home.
That was less than a year ago.
Now, after nine months as a client of the downtown Assertive Community Treatment team and Victoria Integrated Court, Jeannine lives in a one-bedroom apartment. She’s slashed her encounters with police to just one a month and she’s regained her self-worth.
“We see a lady who definitely required our support and was high profile in the community who got to where she has got her dignity back,” said Rick Sanderson, an outreach worker with the downtown ACT team.
Integrated court has operated in Victoria for just over a year and those involved are praising its success. About half the people who go through the hands-on system once haven’t been charged with crimes again. A few, though, haven’t improved.
“The frustration I had as a judge in the regular court was dealing with multiple repeat offenders,” said provincial court Judge Ernie Quantz, who was vital to initiating the local integrated court. “There was that cycle. ... The desire I had and my colleagues had was to support the teams.”
Here’s how it works: three ACT teams and VICOT, or Vancouver Integrated Community Outreach Team, are frontline workers who daily see people struggling with mental health and addiction issues. These are individuals who are frequently arrested, who are regular faces at the courthouse and are often admitted to hospital for infections, injuries or the effects of drugs and alcohol. About 100 of these people in Victoria are clients of the teams.
The teams are made up of outreach workers like Sanderson, as well as nurses, psychologists and social workers.
A teams’ client who is charged is often sentenced in Victoria Integrated Court, or VIC. As a specialized division of the normal court system, VIC has one dedicated judge and one Crown counsel to oversee all the cases, every Tuesday morning.
Having the same people deal with every case gives consistency through communication and builds trust, said Const. Laura Fluit, a Victoria police officer who works with VICOT.
“Everyone’s involve in making you succeed,” Fluit said. “If you don’t want to be involved, you can leave the team.”
According to Quantz, the teams identify individuals with a willingness to be active members of society.
“Here, the basic philosophy of the court is we want to support you with your recovery ... we recognize their reality and that reality is they’re not going to get off drugs tomorrow,” he said.
The VIC judge, who as of March is Adrian Brooks, has leeway to impose different kinds of sentences on the clients than the normal court system. It might be a shorter sentence so the client doesn’t run the risk of forfeiting his or her housing while in jail. It might be work service hours with the goal of having that person repay their debts to the community.
Quantz said the sentences shouldn’t be perceived as lenient. Daily or even twice daily contact with the teams means any veering from the court-imposed conditions of a sentence are caught straight away and dealt with.
“It’s the whole idea of immediate consequences and repaying the public,” he said.
The Downtown Victoria Business Association works with VIC to offer community service work on its Clean Team – sometimes within hours of a sentencing.
“I think the clients believe in this … because it is a tailored solution,” said DVBA general manager Ken Kelly. “These are people who are not only frustrated with themselves, but the community is frustrated with the situation that is created when nothing is done to address the challenges.”
This summer, Quantz and others will release a report on the effectiveness of VIC and outline where this new system – which aims to manage almost all aspects of these individuals’ lives in a hands-on way – still has gaps.
“We just keep kidding ourselves to think the police and the justice system will solve all our problems,” Quantz said.
“I think at the end of the day, society needs to create the extra step to go from (sentences in a courtroom) to a more inspired, more productive life. We all have to be a little more open to the idea that we are all responsible.”
VIC was launched without a drop of extra money – except to buy a coffee machine for the meeting room used on Tuesdays. By rethinking how the system can work, big improvements have been achieved in Victoria, said judicial justice Brenda Edwards.
“What we’ve really learned here is that with no new funding, we can produce a benefit, just by doing things differently.”
Many clients who successfully get through the VIC system return to court for positive reinforcement. When team members and a judge recognize the improvements people have made, it encourages continued rehabilitation, Sanderson said. The pride the teams have for many of the clients is something many people have never experienced before, he said.