Community Court poised to return to Kelowna after six-year absence | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Community Court poised to return to Kelowna after six-year absence

Kelowna lawyer Theresa Arsenault is helping with an application for a Community Court.
January 03, 2019 - 10:09 AM

KELOWNA - The next step in a two-year effort to re-establish a Community Court in Kelowna should happen this month as proponents wait to hear if their application will be supported.

The John Howard Society submitted its application to a provincial advisory council in June 2018 and again in December. Lawyer Theresa Arsenault helped to line up the necessary support agencies that are vital if the court is going to be re-established after a previous court closed in 2012.

“What makes us hopeful that this can be successful now is that, concurrently with us trying to get this court going again, supportive housing is being created,” Arsenault said. “There’s much more focus on helping rather than treating them as a problem you’d like to ship away.”

"Them" refers to a relatively narrow range of people charged with minor property crimes or minor assaults. They need to be willing to plead guilty and take responsibility for their actions.

In order to qualify, the offender must either suffer from addiction or mental health issues or be homeless, although Arsenault stressed homeless people will likely make up a small portion of the clientele as they are not necessarily involved in criminal activity.

Currently, such offenders are often going through a number of court hearings before anything of substance is done.

The Community Court (sometimes called an Integrated Court) concept is to have the same judge, police and care agency staff working together to find ways to deal with the underlying causes of the criminal behaviour.

“The judge also gets to know the client,” Arsenault explained. “And the client has to come back, usually, and report to the judge so they’re held accountable. It’s important that you have a consistent judge and a consistent prosecutor. Because they develop a relationship with the accused person and the accused person has somebody they can say to that they’ve complied with their bail conditions.”

A Kelowna judge has already come forward who is willing to serve on the court, if it’s approved.

The court is expected to sit one morning a week. Prior to the formal court hearings, a conference will be held between the Crown prosecutor, defence attorney, probation officer, police and social worker (or an approved person from another agency).

They agree on the appropriateness of diverting the offender to the Community Court although they don’t necessarily agree on the sentence.

The judge will not try the case, since the offender will have already pleaded guilty, but will hold a sentencing hearing. Usually the offender will have to report back to the judge at key times in the future.

When the previous Community Court was running, there were not enough support services in place, especially for drug and alcohol treatment, so many sentences could not be properly carried out.

Arsenault admits there is still a shortage of detox facilities in Kelowna, she said there are many people working on improving that situation.

While she has helped with the process, Arsenault fully credits the John Howard Society and retired Supreme Court Justice Geoff Barrow, who volunteered his time starting in 2016, with putting the application together.

That was aided by Jesse Emmond, who worked as a summer student for the John Howard Society and also put volunteer hours into the project. He’s now an articling law student with Pushor Mitchell, the law firm where Arsenault works.

The community court was a key recommendation of former Kelowna RCMP Supt. Bill McKinnon who filed his report on crime reduction to city council in November 2018. At the time, McKinnon said nothing had been heard back from the provincial court since June.

Arsenault clarified that by saying the original application was filed last June but sent back for more information. There were delays because of changes in the Chief Justice position so the application was not re-filed until Dec. 3.

It’s now in the hands of the Advisory Committee to the Chief Justice.

That committee’s December meeting was postponed to January. Arsenault did not know when the next meeting will be held but expects it to be in the next week or two.

If the Advisory Committee supports the application, that recommendation will go to the Chief Justice, who will make the final decision.

Arsenault has no idea how long that may take.

If approved, the Community Court should serve two key purposes. It should lessen the burden on the regular Provincial Court in dealing with minor charges and get the offenders into the treatment they need in order to avoid future criminal activities.

“It’s really important to get the people out of the justice system who should not be in the justice system,” Arsenault said. “Really, they need mental health help or addiction help or something like that.”

Ironically, given the role Arsenault played in moving this effort forward, she specializes in business and estate planning law and has not attended criminal court hearings.

She learned about, and became involved with, the Community Court application as a member of the Journey Home Task Force on homelessness.

“On the Journey Home Task Force, somebody said, ‘what happened to the Community Court’ and everyone looks at me because I’m the lawyer,” she said. “I said, 'I have no idea. What is it?' So I started checking.”

That’s when she found that Barrow and Emmond were already working on the application and got involved in helping pull others together to support the effort.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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