Justin “Drex” Wilcomes: It seems every other day we talk about crime in Surrey, and many years ago, when Dianne Watts was mayor, she had a lot of support for what was called community courts. Basically, the way I understand these is that they are put in and they’re put there to specifically deal with habitual offenders, whether they be petty drug crimes, whether they be break and enters, people who are always consistently inside that system, so they’re put in these community courtrooms and they actually do a lot of good. In fact, there’s one in operation on the downtown east side, a lot of these in New York City. In fact, that is where Dianne Watts, the former mayor, got the idea from.
So we get the news this morning…. According to the Surrey Leader, At an interview conducted in that newspaper, we apparently learn today that the city of Surrey is now backing away from setting up a community court to deal with those repeat offenders. After years of that support of the idea from inside and outside city hall, something has now happened. What has actually changed? And would a community have helped or hindered the city?
Well, we’re going to chat to Harry Bains in a couple of seconds here. He is an NDP MLA who is a huge advocate for community courts. He’s going to tell us the difference between a community court and what Surrey is now putting in — we understand a thing that’s called justice hubs. I don’t even know what that means, but Harry will hopefully explain that to us in a couple of minutes here.
Here is Linda Hepner on why the change from a community court to a justice hub.
Linda Hepner: The fact of the matter is that the idea of a community court has been around for quite some time. I think actually 2007 is when we first entered into discussions, and quite frankly, there has been little or no movement in all that time. What we’ve got now is called — well, I’m going to call it — an integrated services network. In terms of sort of other semantics of does it provide the same resources that we would have expected from a community court, yes. The challenge now is to ensure that those resources are allocated in…that there are sufficient resources in all those areas.
Wilcomes: I wonder if her plan here involves helipads. I don’t know. We just have to wait and see, I guess.
Well, as expected, the former Surrey mayor and current Conservative MP Dianne Watts says it just doesn’t make sense not to go ahead with community courts. Now, here’s what I find fascinating here. While Dianne Watts was mayor, she was a huge advocate to have Linda Hepner replace her. So what has happened in the period where Dianne Watts has stepped away from the mayor’s job into this federal position? Why has Surrey changed their mind?
I didn’t really get an answer there from Linda Hepner. She just talks in circles most of the time, so I didn’t really understand what she was even saying. Here’s what Dianne Watts had to say today.
Dianne Watts: You know, I’m very disappointed. I know as I was mayor for almost a decade and the council that served with me really pushed to have a community court and not just, you know, an area where people could go and get information, because that’s always existed. It’s actually getting to the root causes of what and how to change people’s behaviour. It’s best modelled in New York. People have replicated it all over the world, and that was what we wanted to do. You know, it was promised all along, and so it’s a little disappointing that it’s not coming to Surrey.
Wilcomes: Yeah, I’d imagine it would be disappointing. As a mayor, you would put in a substantial amount of work with yourself and the other councillors to try and get an idea off the ground. If you know an idea’s going to work you go, you look at the idea, you observe the idea and you come back and you give a report about what you saw, what you observed, how it could work in your community. And for everything that they worked on, they were all in agreeance that was going to happen. So what has happened in the last couple of years?
Strange, indeed. Let’s bring in Harry Bains. He’s an NDP MLA for Surrey-Newton. He’s also an advocate for community courts. Now, Harry, I’ll get you to explain to us, what is the difference between a community court and a justice hub?
Harry Bains: A justice hub only, I think Linda Hepner and others can explain properly. What I understand them saying is that they will have some professionals in one room, under one roof, and that they will work with those people who are convicted or who are actually charged with offenses, and these are repeated offenders, I suppose, and they will work with them to see if they could work with them.
That system already exists. I think the difference between that and the community court is a community court, you have a dedicated judge, a Crown prosecutor. They understand what the background of those offenders are. They understand what really is causing them that criminal behaviour and they have those professionals that the community hub is talking about sitting there.
And the idea is to hold them accountable for their actions and they will be given the opportunity to work with those professionals to deal with their underlying problems. It could be addiction, it could be mental health. Largely, in most of those cases, they are both together. People with mental health, they also have addiction problems and vice versa. So they will draft a plan, these are the people, some of them are aboriginal background and they understand the issues for that community and the others have health care professionals in there, they have addictions services there. So all these professionals work together with the judge and the Crown prosecutor and then they devise a program for them.
But the other part that is different than the regular court is that their cases are heard in a very, very timely fashion. This particular case it would be within 14 days whereas you go to a regular court, it’s like six months. So, in the meantime, they are still out on the street and they’re reoffending and they’re causing all kinds of problems in the neighbourhood. So we’re not dealing with the underlying problems and they go through the system and then they’re back on the street again after they serve their sentence.
Wilcomes: Harry, I guess the theory behind community courts is that because you have one dedicated set of team working with certain amounts of people, one, you build relationships with those people between the judges and the habitual offenders, and I would imagine, too, you have more of a known approach to the person that you were dealing with instead of, like you said, jumping around different courtrooms, maybe waiting six months, whereas you nip this in the bud straight away and you can get that person on the right track.
Bains: Absolutely. I think all the professionals and the crime reduction strategies all around the world have recognized one thing: these repeat offenders, or we call them prolific offenders, these are the people, they go through the system time and time again, there are cases, like, 142 charges, 60 charges, 70 charges, but these guys have no end [inaudible] for them and they keep on doing this all of their life and they cause havoc in their neighbourhood when they come out of the jail.
So I think the punitive system isn’t working in those cases. It’s the preventative, it’s rehabilitation system, and the only way to work that is if you have a dedicated judge, dedicated Crown, and all the professionals who know these people and they know the victims of crime as well. And victims of crime are also working with these professionals and the court system and, sometimes, the offenders, when they plead guilty, they are to go and do community work, sometimes with the victims.
And then they understand what the victim is going through and then sometimes they build a relationship and they turn their lives around and they end up working for the victim if it’s a business, right? So these are the types of success stories we see in Vancouver, we have two different courts in Vancouver. We’ve seen some real success stories out of there. They did the re-evaluation of the Vancouver Downtown Community Court and the outcome was they’re saying that they’ve found that the Downtown Community Court case management team exhibits significant creative reduction of reoffending compared to a matched group of provincial offenders that received the traditional justice responses.
So, clearly, we have a tested system out there. New York went through it. They made the commitment that we want to get rid of crime and here in Vancouver, they pleaded for it and they received the system. Surrey was promised at the same time in the House with the then-attorney general Wally Oppal said, yes, Surrey will get their community court as well. And today we’re saying no, we’re not going to get it. It’s a halfway measure that we are going through in my view than having the full system where we can actually help these people get off the street and cut the crime.
Wilcomes: Harry, I assume that you can only speculate on what I’m about to say here but I’ll put it to you anyway. What do you think has changed in the 10 years since Dianne Watts visited New York City, saw that these community courts were doing good things in that community, knew that the community courts in Vancouver were working. What has happened since she has walked away from city hall there? Because she said that while she was mayor she even had the support of council. Now, one of those council members is now mayor and she’s the one rejecting the idea now. Why do you think that would have happened?
Bains: Well, I think, whether it was Dianne Watts at the time or current mayor and council, they are hitting a brick wall in Victoria. Victoria isn’t coming through with the resources that we need to put these systems together. And so when they are given a half measure, they accepted it, at least something’s better than nothing. I’m only speculating but I don’t know what the real reasons are. But I think that would be my speculation on this. Victoria is not committed to providing resources to prevent crime, to have enforcement of our laws, and also deterrent pieces. All those are missing.
Parents are suffering, the school system is suffering, our communities are suffering, our businesses are suffering because these people are on the street, their underlying problems aren’t being dealt with and we just continue on with the status quo. That is not acceptable. It shouldn’t be acceptable.
Wilcomes: Harry, in the Legislature, do the BC Liberals, who are currently in power, do they support community courts for the most part?
Bains: I’ve told you that back when Wally Oppal was attorney general, and when Vancouver community court was announced, I challenged Wally Oppal at that time, you promised Surrey as well. So what happened, he says Surrey is also coming, we want to establish Vancouver first and Surrey is next. And they supported at that time. I don’t know what’s going on out there. Christy Clark basically wants to put politics into everything that she does, every decision she makes.
I think balancing the budget is her key priority, which is a political decision, rather than investing in crime reduction, an education system, and a health care system. Seems to be none of that is important to her.
Wilcomes: Harry, let me ask you this, this decision, is this a provincial decision that was made or is this a decision by the council? Because all I’m hearing is it was a decision by the city not to support it. I haven’t really heard the Premier saying no, this is not happening.
Bains: I think the Solicitor General, when he was here announcing expansion of courts and when he came back working with the police allowing the street cameras to be used, at that time that question was put to the Solicitor General. He said no, we’re not looking at a community court right now.