Youth in state care make up almost half of kids in the youth criminal justice system — a phenomenon Ryerson professor Judy Finlay wants to challenge with her new pilot project announced Wednesday.
The $1.36-million project aims to keep youth out of jail and help those already in the criminal justice system navigate its siloed agencies. Roughly $1.2 million is from the federal Youth Justice Fund, with $150,000 from the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services.
“I’m hoping that fewer young people are charged and there’s less police involvement,” Finlay said of her goal for the pilot. “Young people told us clearly that they look at group homes as gateways to jail, and so we are hoping to interrupt it right at that point.”
The Cross-Over Youth Project, co-chaired by Finlay and Justice Brian Scully of the Ontario Court of Justice, was created in October 2013. The committee consulted officials across 10 service sectors in the province, involved at different stages in the youth’s lives — including children’s aid, Crown attorneys and police.
From there, the committee determined 10 main themes that can improve conditions for kids served by multiple agencies within the criminal justice system. A central theme for the committee is to reduce the number of players in the lives of these youth.
“For those that end up in the system, we want to have a streamlined approach for them; mentors, court workers that can move the kids through in a different kind of way,” she said.
The five-year pilot will run in Toronto and other parts of Ontario, including Thunder Bay, Belleville and Chatham. Findlay notes that Belleville was selected due to the large number of group homes in the area, and Thunder Bay because 99 per cent of youth in the court system there are aboriginal.
Toronto police are working on a diversion program to help youth avoid criminal charges. Superintendent Elizabeth Byrnes, a unit commander from 51 Division, said the program is part of a culture change within policing.
“This is not just a diversion program,” Byrnes said. “This is a change in how we do business.”
A fifth pilot site will be selected based on what the researchers learn from outcomes in the other cities.
Thaila Dixon, a first-year student at York University, used to live in a group home. She will be heading up the project’s youth advisory committee.
“I hope that we can educate youth on their rights and help them build a capacity to advocate for themselves and make the system work for them,” Dixon said.
In her speech at the project announcement, Dixon thanked the committee for consulting youth and involving them in the process.
“Youth do not need advocates who speak in quick, slick tongues to protect and save them,” she said. “They need to be given the opportunity to expand their capacity and understanding in how the system can both benefit or exploit them so they can speak for themselves.”