EDITORIAL: Time not served

Time will tell if a decision to forego plans for a community court in Surrey is a good one

Time will tell if a decision to forego plans for a community court in Surrey is a good one.

The news, confirmed June 2 by B.C’s Attorney General Suzanne Anton, surprised and disappointed those who, a decade ago, saw the system as one that had potential to tackle many of the city’s crime issues at their roots – mental health and addiction.

Others say the new direction – of a ‘justice hub’ providing wrap-around services akin to a community court at the soon-to-be-expanded Surrey courthouse – is no less pleasing.

“I think what we’re getting is a good step forward and we’re going to see how that works first,” Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said last week.

The tack – of ‘seeing how that works’ – is curious, given that research has documented the efficacy of community courts elsewhere.

Hepner’s Surrey First predecessor Dianne Watts, certainly thinks so. Now MP for South Surrey-White Rock, Watts advocated for a community court during her time as mayor and said, upon hearing the latest decision, that it breaks repeated provincial promises of establishing such a facility.

“We know it works,” Watts said. “That model has been replicated throughout the world and it continues to work.”

The system is considered best-practice in states such as New York, where arrests for some crimes have dropped by more than 50 per cent. As well, a Vancouver lawyer, who was asked in 2012 to review the province’s clogged court system, pointed to community courts as part of the solution.

Surrey’s overloaded court system is well-documented. Gordon Bylo has watched his schizophrenic son suffer through a justice system ill-equipped to deal with his mental-health issues for nine years. Many others are in the same position – either watching a loved one fall through the cracks, or repeatedly finding themselves back before the courts with little done to address what keeps them offending.

A community-court model, with a separate judge and Crown counsel, is described as one of “instant accountability” that is effective in tackling low-level crime. Not only are penalties swift, but with relevance to the crime committed. That can include counseling for domestic violence, or restitution for acts of theft and graffiti.

Those convicted of relatively minor crimes resulting from substance abuse are sent directly to treatment, usually within hours of court appearance.

It would be interesting to know what drove the decision to forego the creation of a community court in Surrey. The choice has been made to wait and see if it was the right decision.

Hopefully, it won’t take a decade to find out.