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Victoria integrated court offers offenders helping hand

A collaborative system that assists Victoria’s mentally ill and those with addictions as they face the justice system is being hailed as a success, three years after the innovative program began.
Provincial court Judge Ernie Quantz at the Victoria courthouse.

A collaborative system that assists Victoria’s mentally ill and those with addictions as they face the justice system is being hailed as a success, three years after the innovative program began.

Victoria Integrated Court began in March 2010 and has so far shepherded more than 200 people through the justice system. Each has been supported by a team of professionals representing police, the judiciary, the Vancouver Island Health Authority, probation officers and social-service workers.

The Downtown Victoria Business Association had a role to play as well, because downtown businesses had been overwhelmed by ongoing petty crime.

“It has taken on a much larger life than we envisioned when we started, with 66 clients three years ago,” said John Ducker, deputy chief of the Victoria police department.

In the years leading up to the integrated court, those 66 people generated 6,496 calls to police. After they participated in the court, the calls generated by this group dropped 58 per cent, to 2,671.

“Which is huge because they are highly challenging people to deal with and take up lots of resources,” Ducker said.

The idea is to give people whose crimes stem from addictions and mental-health problems a helping hand so they can find housing and get involved with programs such as drug and alcohol counselling.

“Unless a person is given some stability with their housing, they’re going to keep offending,” said Robert Mulligan, a Victoria lawyer who has seen clients make real progress.

People who have no one else to rely on have benefited from having others take an interest in them and help them solve their problems, “instead of having them come to court to face sanction after sanction,” Mulligan said.

Integrated court is available to those approved by VIHA’s Assertive Community Treatment team — the client has to agree to participate.

You don’t have to be a prolific offender or have a lengthy criminal record to become a candidate, said provincial court judge Ernie Quantz, who helped develop the program.

While there has not yet been a formal review of the three-year-old program, Quantz said that, anecdotally, “there’s no question, for some people, it’s made a huge difference in their lives.”

And downtown business people are seeing a huge difference, too, said Ken Kelly, general manager of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

“What we’ve seen transpire on the streets of downtown is a demonstration of co-ordination and effective collaboration that could go across the country,” Kelly said.

Kelly sees people downtown who used to cause trouble. Now, they’re doing community service, cleaning up the streets of litter and graffiti.

“Some of our business people look at these individuals who they’ve known in another capacity and they say, ‘That’s good to see them out there.’ ”

In the regular court process, those convicted of a crime could be sent to jail. Upon release, they may have lost their temporary housing and social assistance. “The expectation is, when you get out, you’re going to do all these things for yourself, and for a lot of these people, that’s an unrealistic expectation,” Quantz said.

By contrast, the integrated court program often kicks in prior to sentencing, while the person is free on bail.

“They come in to court to be sentenced after a plan has been developed,” Quantz said.

The sentence is then deemed to be “time served,” meaning no further jail time is ordered and the person can continue with the designated plan, which may include drug treatment or mental-health therapy.

A court order on its own isn’t going to stop an addict or alcoholic from getting high or drunk, Quantz said. “We, as the court, don’t take on supervision of their getting healthy.

“Our focus is on harm-reduction in the community.”

The team makes sure rent is paid, damage is repaired and participants have food.

While the integrated court operates on funds in existing budgets, future success requires an infusion of money into mental health and residential treatment beds for those who need them, Ducker said.

“There is a lack of residential treatment beds on the Island; there are none for women,” he said.

“There is a lack of secure care for [people with mental-health problems], so if they’re not kept in a secure environment there, they just move into the justice system and cause problems. The more we can get people into supportive care or long-term care, the less they are a burden on the justice system.”