A court model widely regarded as the gold standard for justice and a key plank in the city’s long-standing Crime Reduction Strategy is no longer coming to Surrey.
On Thursday, B.C.’s Attorney General Suzanne Anton confirmed that a community court for Surrey has been abandoned.
“Community court is off the table,” Anton said in response to a question from The Leader during the groundbreaking for an expansion of Surrey Provincial Court (see story, below).
“We did a lot of work with Surrey over the last few years over the issue of a community court, and what Surrey has concluded is that there will be a justice hub, which would have a lot of the services” offered in a community court, Anton said. “That is the solution that Surrey has concluded as the best one.”
It puts an end to the vision – brought back from New York nearly a decade ago – for better dealing with crimes fuelled by mental illness and addiction.
In 2007, then-Surrey mayor Dianne Watts joined seven city representatives on a trip to Midtown and Red Hill, New York to examine a novel approach to justice called community courts.
After the four-day, $15,000, taxpayer-funded trip, they came back with a vision for a dedicated court that would address the root causes of crime and deliver swift justice
Often described as “instant accountability,” in community courts, people convicted of relatively minor crimes resulting from substance abuse are sent directly for alcohol or drug treatment, usually within hours of appearing in court.
Those appearing for domestic violence are sent to counselling, thieves are directed to repay what was stolen, and graffiti artists are ordered to clean up.
The community court concept became a key part of Surrey’s Crime Reduction Strategy, which was unveiled in 2007.
Reached for comment in Ottawa on Monday, Watts, now the Conservative MP for South Surrey-White Rock, was upset with the news a community court won’t be coming to Surrey.
“We know it works,” Watts said. “That model has been replicated throughout the world and it continues to work.”
“I’m really disappointed to hear that, because it was promised by the government, it was promised by (former premier) Gordon Campbell, it was promised by (former Attorney General) Wally Oppal,” Watts said. “Just being strung along for that many years, it’s really unfortunate.”
The “justice hub” is fine, she said, but it’s not the gold standard of justice Surrey had been seeking with community courts.
“We know it’s there, we know it works,” Watts said. “It was a best practice then, it’s a best practice now.”
Surrey’s Gordon Bylo agrees.
“It’s absolutely necessary,” said Bylo, whose schizophrenic son Brian Bylo, 34, has been in and out of jail for the last nine years.
“If you speak to any Crown (prosecutor) or any judge, they’ll tell you they need a community court. They’re constantly dealing with people with mental health issues.”
Without a community court equipped with a dedicated judge and Crown, the justice system will continue to mistreat society’s most vulnerable, Bylo said.
The efficacy of community courts is well-documented.
An independent evaluation by the National Center for State Courts found Midtown, New York’s 75-per-cent compliance rate for community service was the highest in the state. Since the court was implemented in 1993, prostitution arrests dropped 56 per cent and illegal vending fell by 24 per cent.
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said she’s pleased with the province’s announcement of a court expansion and said the city is plans to offer comprehensive services comparable to those found in a community court.
“I’m going to colour it community court, because it’s wrap around relative to mental health, to youth and domestic (offences),” Hepner said. “I think what we’re getting is a good step forward and we’re going to see how that works first,” Hepner said.
However, she acknowledged the Surrey courthouse expansion won’t feature a separate judge and Crown counsel.
A separate community court with a dedicated judge and Crown is a concept academics have long argued is a good idea.
In 2012, Vancouver lawyer Geoffrey Cowper was asked by the B.C. attorney general to review the province’s court system and in eight months came back with recommendations for change.
One of the changes included the creation of a community court model, which would handle cases involving substance abuse and mental illness, youth and domestic violence.
“Mental illness and addiction in British Columbia’s criminal justice system was identified during consultations as a significant systemic issue,” Cowper wrote in his 288-page report, A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century.
“Early resolution for these people frequently involves the offender accessing health or social programs.”
The report also noted “the mentally ill are more likely to be arrested for disturbance, mischief, minor theft and failure to appear in court than non-ill people.”
Because of their conditions, they are more likely to be jailed, Cowper said.
“The misunderstanding and confusion that often surrounds people with mental illness may cause people to fear and view them as dangerous, when they may, in fact, represent no risk to public safety.”
Without a community court equipped with a dedicated judge and Crown, the justice system will continue to mistreat society’s most vulnerable, Gordon Bylo said.
As an example, Bylo said his son missed a probation appointment a few weeks ago, which is not uncommon for someone with a mental health disorder like his.
He was taken to Surrey Pre-trial Services Centre and put in segregation for 12 days.
“You do not put someone with a serious mental illness on their own for 23 hours a day,” Bylo said. “I just went livid.”
Surrey to get new court space by 2018
More courtrooms, along with space for Crown counsel and registry staff, are on the way for Surrey – home to the B.C.’s busiest provincial court.
B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton made a stop in Surrey on Thursday to break ground on a $33.5-million expansion of the courthouse building in the 14200-block of 56 Avenue.
The expansion will add three courtrooms and two hearing rooms to the existing 14-courtroom building.
It also promises to feature technology that will reduce the cost of trials through advanced evidence presentation and touch-screen capabilities, Anton said.
The Surrey courthouse has the largest criminal caseload in the province, with four out of five new cases being scheduled there.
Also announced Thursday were details of added manpower for Surrey Crown counsel, part of government’s recent $23-million boost to expand B.C.’s anti-guns and gangs strategy.
The funding will add two full-time prosecutors and a paralegal in the Surrey Crown counsel office dedicated to prioritizing alleged offenders with links to guns and gangs.
“We are committed to increasing court capacity to enhance access to justice in British Columbia and in the fast-growing lower Fraser Valley region,” Anton said at last week’s sod turning. “The commitment to expand the Surrey courthouse complements our announced increase in Crown prosecutors, who will be dedicated to prioritizing offenders with links to guns and gangs.”
The court expansion is expected to be up and running by early 2018.