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A look back at one woman's experience with the Downtown Community Court

The government's criminal justice branch released an evaluation report this week on the Downtown Community Court that said the experiment has led to a reduction in criminals committing new offences.
communitycourt
This is a photograph taken in 2009 of Shirley, a 54-year-old drug user and petty criminal. I tracked her case in the Downtown Community Court for a feature story. Photo Jason Lang.

 

The government's criminal justice branch released an evaluation report this week on the Downtown Community Court that said the experiment has led to a reduction in criminals committing new offences.

But the report also found the court didn't lessen the backlog in the justice system or find efficiencies.

Here's a look back at a feature I did in which I chronicled one woman's experience with the court.

Courting hope; Judge Thomas Gove says Vancouver's unique community court experiment turns lives around by giving the accused a chance to stay out of jail and seek the help they need

Vancouver Courier
Wed Feb 18 2009
Page: 1 / FRONT
Section: News
Byline: Mike Howell
Source: Vancouver Courier

Shirley spent a night in jail this month.

At 54, with a record that dates back to 1976 and includes convictions for shoplifting, impaired driving and fraud, it was hardly a memorable experience for the petite woman dressed in black.

Shirley, whose surname is not being published to protect her identity, was arrested for allegedly stealing a purse from the Bay downtown.

She was released from jail the next day after appearing in the Downtown Community Court on Gore Avenue in the Downtown Eastside.

Standing outside the court's entrance, and clutching a clear plastic bag that contained her coat, toque, gloves and keys to her hotel room, Shirley bummed a smoke from a woman on the sidewalk.

She was shivering from the chill in the air.

"It's great to be out again, we'll see what happens when I go back," she said, referring to her Feb. 19 court date. "I hope it works out for me."

What she's hoping for is a life that doesn't involve stealing to survive. From what she's heard, the city's new community court may set her on the right path.

Shirley is on income assistance, lives in a squalid single-room occupancy hotel, has an abscessed right ankle and smokes crack cocaine.

She claims to have kicked her heroin habit and is on a methadone program. She steals, she said, to supplement her $946 monthly income assistance cheque, $425 of which goes to rent.

"I'd like to get some better housing--you should see the dive I live in--and more money for my disability," she said, noting she recently spent five weeks in St. Paul's Hospital for treatment on her abscessed ankle. "People think I steal for drugs. I like to smoke a bit of rock [cocaine], but I really need money for food and just to live."

Shirley was one of more than 40 people who appeared before Judge Thomas Gove Feb. 5 in community court. It was the court's 102nd day of operation.

The emphasis of the "problem-solving court" is to link people such as Shirley with services and programs to address the problems that cause their criminal behaviour. Once that happens, the hope is that Shirley will stay straight and won't continue to clog up a backlogged court system.

The primary advantage the court has over others is that services traditionally scattered throughout the city for offenders are centralized in the court's building.

Agencies include Vancouver Coastal Health, the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C., the Legal Services Society, the Forensic Psychiatric Services Commission and the Vancouver Police Department.

It is the only court of its kind in Canada, and Attorney-General Wally Oppal has called it the most creative court initiative the provincial government has implemented in 35 years.

But with a $5.6 million price tag to build the court and another $4.4 million a year to operate it, is the government's latest justice system experiment making a difference in the community?

The latest statistics released from the court show encouraging results.

From opening day Sept. 10 to Dec. 31, 2008, the court handled 985 cases involving 658 accused criminals. Of those 658 people, 449 resolved their cases.

That means a person either pleaded guilty and was sentenced or the case was stayed because the accused entered into an alternative measures agreement, which often involves community service.

Judge Gove told the Courier the statistics indicate the court is achieving its goal of reducing the time a person spends in court.

In other B.C. courts, some people charged with shoplifting can make more than a dozen court appearances before a final decision is made on a case.

Many times, the end result is similar to what the community court imposes in a couple of weeks or on the day of an offender's first court appearance.

"We want to get people doing what they're going to end up doing as quickly as we can as opposed to having them adjourned for no particular reason," said Gove, who is one of two judges at the court.

In moving through the justice system faster, the accused gets more immediate support for what might be a drug or health care problem.

Court workers frequently stream in and out of the court to escort people to their appointments as Gove releases them.

"We want to catch them at that point, we don't want them to wander off somewhere. If they have to stay over the lunch hour, we provide them with lunch. If they leave the building, some of these folks don't come back."

Statistics show 151 people attended health information sessions conducted by Vancouver Coastal Health. Another 57 people were placed in shelters and 20 people began receiving income assistance--some getting a cheque on the day of their first court appearance.

Gove pointed to a statistic that is crucial to the community court model of rehabilitating an offender and paying back the community for their crime.

Offenders completed 1,285 hours of community service, including garbage pickup, cleaning alleys, building maintenance and reception work.

That's a value of roughly $10,000, based on $8 an hour.

"Virtually everybody does community service," said Gove, who made headlines in the mid-'90s for his exhaustive inquiry into child protection, which resulted in the redesign of B.C.'s child welfare system.

The court has agreements with 25 nonprofit agencies, mainly in the Downtown Eastside, where most offenders do their community service.

Some of the placements are strategic. In one case, a man who wasn't prepared to go to detox for his addiction agreed to do four hours of janitorial work at a detox facility.

"At the end of the day, he stayed there," Gove said.

"It's the leading a horse to water approach."

In other courts, such as the provincial courthouse at 222 Main St. where 17,000 cases were handled last year, an outside agency monitors community service work.

"Frankly, much of the [community service] work is never done," Gove said of the "cat-and-mouse" approach. "But because staff at the community court does the actual administering of the hours, and monitoring that the work is being done, we get the work done."

But Gove doesn't want the public to get the wrong idea about the court--that it is soft on crime. Not true, he said, pointing out that 94 people were sent to jail in the first four months of the court's operation.

Typically, Gove ensures a jail sentence is followed by a probation order, which he describes as the rehabilitation part of the sentence.

"Before they're released from jail, I want someone to be in touch with them and organize where they're going to go, see what kind of supports they need, so they're not just dumped on the street."

Gove was presiding in one of the two courtrooms in the courthouse when the Courier spent a day observing the proceedings.

Courtroom One is slightly larger than a high school classroom and has a few subtle design differences not normally seen in a courtroom.

The judge's bench is low enough so an offender can approach--which occurs when Gove issues release orders--and have a conversation with the judge. That doesn't happen in any other courthouse in B.C.

Some prisoners who go before a judge in the morning at the Main Street courthouse have to wait into the late evening before a justice of the peace signs off on their orders.

The sheer volume of the 17,000 cases causes the delays; community court aims to handle 1,500 individuals in its first year.

The court serves the whole of downtown from Clark Drive to Stanley Park. It's an area with one of the highest rates of property crime in Canada.

The court handles most offences committed downtown such as shoplifting, theft from auto, mischief, assault, impaired driving and drug possession.

If an accused wants to go to trial, the case is turned over to the Main Street courthouse. That's a choice the person makes after being interviewed by the court-appointed defence lawyer, or his own.

The majority of cases during the Courier's visit involved chronic offenders with drug habits charged with shoplifting from Sears, the Bay and London Drugs.

Gove requested only the first names of the offenders be published--an agreement media outlets agreed to before the court opened. Many of the offenders who go before the court are mentally ill and in fragile states.

In one case, the court heard that James, 49, began committing crime in 2000 after becoming addicted to painkillers related to back surgery in 1999.

Once married with five kids, and no criminal record, the former house painter developed a heroin addiction after his doctor cut him off painkillers. James was in court after attempting to steal 13 pairs of socks from London Drugs on Granville Street. He had been in jail for 11 days when he made his court appearance.

"I do realize I need some type of counselling," James said before Gove imposed his sentence. "I just kind of fell off the deep end."

Gove sentenced him to 60 days in jail and nine months probation, noting James' chronic offender pattern dating back to 2000.

He described the sentence as a "60-day timeout" and an opportunity to get counselling in prison for his drug addiction.

"Don't use it to sit around," he told James. "Use it to plan, otherwise you'll be back in court."

"I hope not," James replied as a sheriff's deputy escorted him to a cell.

The court also dealt with a first-time offender.

Yiannis, a 27-year-old swamper on a recycling truck, pleaded guilty to assaulting a Vancouver police officer after a drunken night in Gastown.

Crown prosecutor Andrew Cochrane told the court that police were dispatched Jan. 18 to the Shine nightclub in the 300-block Cordova Street.

The call was for a woman being assaulted. When police arrived, they said Yiannis was drunk, swearing and shouting racial slurs at witnesses who attempted to intervene.

"He shouted at the witnesses with words to the effect of 'white power,'" said Cochrane, noting the victim, who was also drunk, was a long-time friend of Yiannis.

During the arrest and transportation to jail, Yiannis elbowed the driver of the police wagon in the face. He also called jail guards "f***ing goofs" and "fags." The female victim wasn't injured and told police later that she didn't want to have further contact with Yiannis. But, Cochrane noted, she didn't cooperate with the police's investigation.

Before Gove delivered his sentence, Yiannis apologized for his behaviour. He said the night in question was his birthday and he was looking "to unwind." He added that he has since reconciled with the woman, whom he's known since he was 10.

"I truly am sorry," said the tall, slender man standing in his dark suit.

Gove imposed a conditional discharge and probation for nine months. Yiannis must also complete 20 hours of community service before March 15 and write a letter of apology to the officer he assaulted. Gove also suggested Yiannis's probation officer consider having Yiannis meet with the officer during a shift to understand the difficulties of the job.

Before court was in session that morning, Crown prosecutor Cochrane had been on the job for almost three hours.

Cochrane, who was on the planning team for the court, begins work at 6:30 a.m. to review the cases that will be prosecuted that day. This includes poring over police reports of incidents that occurred the previous night. If need be, he consults with service providers such as Vancouver Coastal Health to find out more about the accused person's status.

For example, if a person before the court has missed his or her court date, it may be because the offender was in St. Paul's Hospital for medical treatment. Cochrane would then inform the judge in court why the person was absent. This simple finding helps avoid a warrant being issued for the person's arrest for failing to appear in court.

With prosecutors at Main Street handling up to 100 files a day, there is little time to investigate why a person missed court unless informed by a defence lawyer or the accused.

Cochrane is a veteran of Main Street and a fan of its "hectic, transactional, fast pace." But he knows there are limits to what a prosecutor can achieve in that environment.

"With other agencies here and more information, prosecutors can think about approaches and alternatives that wouldn't normally be available," he said from his office. "You can think about outcomes and the purpose behind a prosecution differently."

Cochrane likens the community court to a small town court being dropped into the Downtown Eastside. Its method of operation allows for continuity, efficiency and familiarity for employees of the court and the accused criminals who attend.

"There's very instant feedback. If somebody is put out on an order and they re-offend, it's not some other judge who is dealing with it, it's not some other prosecutor. It comes back to the same people who made original decisions around the file."

But the problems of the Downtown Eastside being what they are, Cochrane is realistic about what can be done for a drug addict with mental illness who doesn't have a home.

"We haven't found some new cure for difficult mental illness, we don't have a new drug addiction solution. So the reality is it's still a complicated situation and we're only doing a very small bit of it at the court end."

Added Cochrane: "This court doesn't have a magic pill."

That said, there are people who have gone through community court and are beginning to change their lifestyle.

But Gove, the court's main spokesman, said none of those people are ready to be profiled in a newspaper article. However, he shared a story of a man in his mid-20s who developed an addiction to heroin at 16. Gove kept the chronic thief out of jail and imposed a conditional sentence.

The man was meeting with a supervisor every day, adhering to his curfew and making plans to find a job and housing away from the Downtown Eastside. Then he relapsed and found himself back in jail. He has since agreed to enter a residential treatment program outside the Downtown Eastside.

"He's trying really hard and every day that someone like that is trying really hard and not stealing to support an addiction, he's probably saving the merchants of downtown Vancouver a couple thousand dollars a day.

So when people ask me if I have a success story that to me is a success story."

Arthur DeMeulemeester has seen success stories but he's seen more that have gone the other way in his 38 years as a defence lawyer in Vancouver. He's spent many days at the Main Street courthouse and almost two dozen at community court, where he represented Shirley on the day of the Courier's visit.

Most of his clients face charges for drug possession and shoplifting. Many have health problems and are stuck in a chronic cycle of committing crime, doing drugs and going to jail.

Many of his colleagues believe community court is soft on crime. In Shirley's case, Gove agreed that Shirley be considered for alternative measures.

DeMeulemeester suspects Shirley, who is originally from Ontario where she once worked in the cafeteria at the GM plant in Oshawa, would have received a jail sentence had she been prosecuted at Main Street. Alternative measures, he said, are generally reserved for first-time offenders.

Even so, DeMeulemeester knows the "soft on crime" label isn't a fair assessment of community court. He noted one of his clients received the equivalent of a three-month jail sentence for a minor theft charge.

"Judge Gove isn't afraid to give out a jail sentence. I've seen people get better deals, and avoid jail, in other courts."

He agreed with Gove and Cochrane that community court is more efficient and better coordinated to help people get off drugs, find housing and stop committing crime.

"It's easy to be cynical about these things and say it's just another boondoggle. But even after 38 years [as a lawyer], you've got to keep a fresh mind. Why not give it a try--nothing else is working."

But will it work for Shirley?

Two days after she was released from court, the Courier spoke to her outside her hotel on Powell Street while she waited for a bus.

She was dressed in a thick black turtleneck sweater, a faux fur black coat, black pants and white runners. Her jet black hair was covered partially by a black toque.

"I'm going boosting," she said, when asked where she was headed. "I'm out of money, so I've got to do what I've got to do."

She placed her right hand on her chest.

"Just talking to you about it gets my heart going."

What about bus fare?

"They always let me on. I just tell them I need a ride."

The Courier watched her board the No. 4 UBC bus. It winded through Chinatown and the downtown business district before the driver dropped Shirley off near Dunsmuir and Howe streets.

She limped across Howe Street and into a set of doors to Pacific Centre mall. A few hours later, she was back in her room about to light up her crack pipe when the Courier arrived.

She seemed nervous.

How did you do?

"I did OK."

She said she got $40 on the street for stealing a $230 Guess purse from a popular department store in Pacific Centre. She spent the money on juice, eggs, milk, Kraft dinner and a couple bags of coffee--and a rock of cocaine.

Her cluttered room is dark and smaller than the jail cell she once served time in at the now-closed Women's Detention Centre in Burnaby.

She has a bar-sized fridge, an old microwave and a small television. A toaster on the floor is sometimes used to create heat.

Pages of her criminal record are tacked on the wall next to her sink. On a calendar, she's circled Feb. 18--the day she gets her income assistance cheque.

She also has the 19th marked.

It's her community court date.

She plans to be there.

For now, it's time to light up her pipe.

"It's kind of a little celebration thing--like yeah, I made it through another day without going to jail."

Here's the follow-up story published two weeks after the feature:

Shirley is going to trial for her shoplifting charge.

Until she appeared in Downtown Community Court Wednesday, the 54-year-old woman thought she was eligible for alternative measures instead of the possibility of going to jail.

"I don't know what happened," she said outside the courthouse.

Shirley, whose surname isn't being published to protect her identity, was the subject of a Feb.18 Courier cover story on community court.

The court's aim is to link offenders such as Shirley with services and programs to address the problems that cause their criminal behaviour. It's operated since September.

Shirley first appeared in court Feb. 6 after being arrested the day before for allegedly stealing a purse from the Bay downtown. The judge released her after the Crown said she would be considered for alternative measures.

But after she was released, she confessed to the Courier that she returned to shoplifting and smoking crack cocaine. Lawyer Arthur DeMeulemeester, acting on Shirley's behalf, believes Shirley's candidness may have cost her an opportunity to enter into an alternative measures agreement.

Such an agreement could have included community service work, counselling and attending anti-drug and anti-crime programs. Had she lived up to the agreement, the Crown would have stayed the shoplifting charge. "Nobody has said it, but I think you can surmise that it was because of what was written in the [Courier] article," said DeMeulemeester as he was on his way to set a date for Shirley's trial.

Crown prosecutor Andrew Cochrane said the decision not to offer Shirley alternative measures was not connected to Shirley's confessions in the article.

Cochrane said further examination of Shirley's file, which includes a criminal record that dates back to 1976, determined that her risk to re-offend was too high.

The Crown offered Shirley a two-month conditional sentence followed by six months probation. But Shirley said she would rather take her chances at trial. She noted she received a one-day sentence earlier in the month for a shoplifting charge dating back to April 2008. Her trial for the recent charge may not occur for six to eight months.

Shirley is on the methadone program for a heroin addiction. She smokes crack cocaine but not daily, she said, claiming she is not addicted to crack. She lives in a squalid single-room occupancy hotel on Powell Street, where she lives on a $946 a month income assistance cheque, $425 of which goes to rent.

So will she continue shoplifting until her trial date?

"The idea is to try to stop that," she said.

How?

"We'll find out," she said, before walking up Main Street to buy cigarettes.

mhowell@vancourier.com

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