Rehabilitation-first court model to be expanded into Barrie. What it means for the Ontario city

How crime is approached in the justice system in Barrie, Ont., could start to look a lot different, with the city the latest in the province to be approved to pilot an alternative court model.

A new integrated approach to crime known as a community justice centre, already operating four pilots in Ontario, has been approved to open in Barrie.

The Community Justice Centre will work in tandem with a social services hub, already in the works, to look at how to address the root causes of crime versus just punishing offenders.

“I think we can all appreciate, especially after COVID, there is an increase in mental health and homelessness. Criminal charges aren’t going to solve that problem – it’s never going to solve our problem,” said Valarie Gates, an Inspector with Barrie Police.

“That’s how we’ve done it for years, and we’re still in the same place, so I think our community is ready to look at a different approach, a more humane approach, a more holistic approach that sets people up for this type of approach to failure.”

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Gates could not comment on if the funding was approved yet but did speak about its potential for the community. Global News has confirmed, through access to information requests, that Ottawa has agreed to pay Ontario $11 million over four years to expand four community justice centres in the province and open a fifth.

In 2022, officials working for the Ontario attorney general submitted a grant application to their federal counterparts. It asked for $11 million over four years to expand four community justice centres in the province and open a fifth in Barrie.

With courts experiencing a backlog of cases and the current system not doing enough to address repeat offenders, Gates said it’s time to start looking at addressing the issue in a different way.

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Ontario’s application for funding argues this new model would help significantly divert case volumes out of local courthouses by around 7.9 per cent with a one-day-per-week pilot, which would help address the criminal case backlog brought on by pandemic shutdowns.

Read more: Justice centre opens in Kenora, Ont., to help Indigenous people, has health, social supports

What is a community justice centre?

According to the application, the community justice model takes a rehabilitation-first approach, integrating justice, health and social services in the same space.

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The system aims to have judges, Crown attorneys and police officers work with health, mental health and housing specialists to “provide holistic wrap-around services for vulnerable accused persons,” according to provincial documents.

The progressive approach to criminal justice, government documents indicated, is designed to address the root causes of crime.

Currently, the government describes Ontario’s court system as a “revolving door for offenders” whose life circumstances “including mental illness, poverty, inter-generational trauma, systemic racism and [drug] and alcohol addiction” leave them constantly ensnared in the law.

The Barrie plan would include a social services hub within the same space as the justice centre to address underlying issues like mental health, addiction, and homelessness.

What will the social services hub look like?

Plans for the social services hub, part of the city’s four-year Community Safety and Well-Being Plan, are already underway, thanks to Barrie Police receiving a Community Safety and Policing Grant for 2022 to 2025.

Insp. Gates said they are working to secure a location and hopefully open the social services hub as soon as September of this year. Fall is also the timeline referenced in government documents to open a community justice centre.

Without providing the wrap-around services to address the underlying reasons why a crime was committed, Gates feels they are setting people up to fail and re-offend.

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“It’s imperative to focus more on reform than sentencing. This at-risk population, they don’t have access to a lot of these services that are out there, and we have some amazing services very in our community,” she said.

“So someone from our at-risk population because they need help, they know where to go, they can walk in the door, and they’re going to receive that wrap-around support from all of our agencies working together to help that person reintegrate into our community and to be successful.”

Barrie police are partnering with several social services agencies and community organizations to make both the justice centre and social services hub possible, including the Canadian Mental Health Association, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, Barrie Native Friendship Centre, Barrie Probation and Parole Office, and Downtown Barrie Business Association.

Read more: Ontario’s attorney general says coronavirus pandemic has jumpstarted justice system modernization

How it will work

Gates said they are still looking into how the justice centre would work and the types of offences that would be seen, but to start, they will look at low-level crimes such as drug and theft offences related to survival instead of criminal intent.

“If someone’s stealing something because they’re hungry, do we really need to put them through the justice system? So those are the sort of things we’re going to look at initially,” she said.

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Attorney General of Ontario Doug Downey told Global News each justice centre is focused on a different theme and approach to who to target.

“It may be somebody who’s involved in a relatively minor crime, And we’ve determined that it’s due to unemployment. London is focused on that in particular, and then matching them up with the resources to attack the root causes of why they were there in the first place,” he said.

Gates said people would still be charged and have to agree to go through the justice centre model and take accountability for their actions, but the system would look at how to treat the underlying issues.

“We are there for that wrap-around to help them succeed and reintegrate them back into the community as opposed to a lot of them walking out of that courtroom, and they don’t know where to go, and they’re in the same situation they were in before they went into the courthouse.”

“If you could take all the social services and put them in a courthouse and they’re available to be a resource to individuals, of course, you don’t have physical space for that. So instead, we’re taking the judges, the crowns and the other machinery of government and the court system and putting it where the social services are,” Downey said.

By implementing these changes, Gates said they hope to decrease the number of repeat offenders while changing how they perceive someone committing a crime.

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“We’re going to look at the person as a whole as opposed to a black-and-white approach to this law, and you broke it,” she said.

The funding for Barrie and the other cities involved in the program will run until 2026.

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