Toronto Star

A second chance


When a 17-year-old girl stole a lipstick from a Shoppers Drug Mart back in 2002, instead of being charged with theft and entering the criminal justice system, she got a second chance.

Under a pilot program her case was diverted to a project that allowed young people under18 to avoid arrest or criminal charges if they agreed to participat­e in a program to prevent repeat offences. It worked. Less than 4 per cent of diverted youth reoffended during the pilot project.

Sadly, the successful program came to an end after only 20 months when the federal government did not renew funding for it in 2003. But as the Star’s Sandro Contenta and Jim Rankin report, 13 years later, Toronto police have found a way to renew it. That means there’s welcome hope for the thousands of kids who could benefit from a project like it.

How? It’s not that the police department has received funding for it. But in the intervenin­g years, community agencies that provide kids with counsellin­g — that might help them deal with a mentalheal­th problem, find a job, get off drugs or meet their victims to help them realize the impact of their crimes — have been receiving more funding to deal with kids after they are charged.

Now all police have to do is divert kids into the programs before they are arrested, fingerprin­ted and began working their way through an overburden­ed justice system.

Happily, that will begin sometime during the first few months of 2016, says Det. Stella Karras, one of the officers responsibl­e for the new program.

It got underway partly because of a simple quirk of fate: the police department’s audit and quality assurance unit studied youth procedures and realized they needed updating, Karras says. Thousands of kids were entering the justice system that would have been eligible for diversion under the old program. The auditors looked at the 2002 pilot project and realized there was a way to renew it.

And it’s partly because of timing. “Children and youth issues have suddenly hit the forefront” in the city and province, Karras notes.

The new program could affect the fate of thousands of kids. In 2014, 3,800 youths from 12 to 17 were arrested. And up to the end of October of this year, 3,300 youth were arrested. While 35 per cent of arrested youth were released unconditio­nally, the rest could be considered for the new program.

That means kids who steal a lipstick, or kids in care who run away from group homes, will get a second chance. That may be all they need.

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