COLUMN: No justice in broken promise

The cancellation of a long-proposed community court for Surrey will not help the city's crime problem.

Crime has been the dominant issue in Surrey since well before the 2014 municipal election, which saw Linda Hepner succeed Dianne Watts as mayor and the Surrey First slate gain all nine seats on council.

Back in 2007, when South Surrey-White Rock MP Watts was mayor, city council adopted a crime-reduction strategy. One key element was introduction of a community court, similar to one that has been quite successful in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

However, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton and the city have now put the brakes on that idea. At a recent groundbreaking for an expansion of Surrey Provincial Court – the busiest provincial courthouse in the province – Anton said “community court is off the table.”

The idea for a community court in Surrey followed a trip by Watts and seven other city representatives to New York. They found that community courts there addressed the root causes of crime and delivered swift justice.

In such courts, people convicted of relatively minor crimes resulting from substance abuse are sent directly for treatment, often within a very short time. Those up for domestic violence charges go to counselling. Thieves are directed to repay what is stolen.

In Vancouver, a community court has been operating since 2008. A review in 2014 found that there was a significant drop in re-offending by those who appeared in the court.  Anton said at that time “that is the most important thing a courtroom can do.”

If it works well in the Downtown Eastside, why is there no interest for Surrey?

There are many similar social issues in Surrey, particularly substance abuse and homelessness, although such issues are not as restricted to one area of the city. Recent actions by the Surrey bylaw department in seizing the belongings of the homeless and doing what some observers call “cattle prodding” to move them along seem to indicate an ongoing problem.

Anton said at the sod-turning that “Surrey has concluded there will be a justice hub, which should have a lot of the services” of a community court.  And Hepner said she believes the expanded court will fulfil some of the functions of a community court – “I’m going to colour it community court, because it’s wrap around relative to mental health, youth and domestic (offences).”

Watts isn’t as convinced. Now a Conservative MP in Ottawa, she said the promise of a community court was strung along for many years by various provincial politicians. She still believes it would work well.

“It was a best practice then, it’s a best practice now.”

People who are regularly involved with offenders, particularly first-time offenders and those hampered by mental illness or substance abuse, have said dealing with them in the regular court system does not work. The justice system is filled with delays. Young people, mentally ill people and substance abusers often have no idea what they are even in court for, by the time their case goes to trial.

It is important to have services available to people who are in court, but the delays will likely minimize the benefit of any additional services.

It needs to be pointed out that the 2014 review of the Vancouver community court said there was little improvement in courtroom efficiency. Perhaps that is why Surrey has caved in to pressure not to bring one in, and has been mollified by promises of additional services.

Gordon Bylo, the Surrey father of a schizophrenic man who has been in and out of jail for nine years, said his son missed a probation appointment and was placed in segregation for 12 days. How is that improving justice?

The broken promise of a community court for Surrey is not good news, when it comes to attempts to reduce crime in Surrey.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.