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Access to Justice Through Community

Recent reports have underscored that access to justice is everyone’s problem yet the issue fails to resonate with the public – they indicate low confidence and a sense of alienation. In response, many justice sector organizations are looking at different ways to enhance public engagement. The logic being that a better link with the public will inform more meaningful and innovative solutions to access to justice challenges. This approach puts the user at the centre and considers how justice services can be sensitive to lived experience and community-specific needs.

Community Justice Centres (CJCs) are among the most user and community focused access to justice responses. Typically based in low-income communities with a high rate of low-level crime, CJCs address the overrepresentation of vulnerable people in the criminal justice system by adopting a holistic approach. Cases are assessed with consideration of an individual’s unique life circumstances and related underlying concerns such as substance use disorders, mental health issues, unemployment, homelessness and other variables related to poverty. CJCs offer a range of supports and services under one roof in existing community spaces – typically in a building with a welcoming environment such as a community centre or library. This approach aims to break down silos between service providers and emphasizes collaborative, multi-disciplinary problem solving.

Justice and social services are organized around the individual in a way that also benefits the community. The timing of intervention after an arrest is significant – instead of a court appearance weeks later, CJCs develop a care plan with a coordinated on-site services within hours or days. These services, such as job training, drug treatment and mental health counselling, are culturally sensitive and can be available to all community members. By addressing the social determinants of crime, CJCs reduce recidivism while also fostering healthier, safer communities that are confident in their justice system.

CJCs are successfully operating in the United States, South Africa, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore and various other countries. Brooklyn’s Red Hook Community Centre was the first multijurisdictional community court in the United States housing civil, family and criminal courts. An independent evaluation found the Justice Center had cut in half the use of jail in misdemeanour cases and produced an estimated $5000 savings in taxpayer dollars per defendant. In addition, over 85% of defendants felt that their case had been handled fairly and juvenile offenders were 20% less likely to re-offend. Residents reported feeling safer in their community and had a renewed connection to the justice system attributed to the fact that they felt respected, engaged and heard. The CJC became a welcome part of Red Hook’s community because it was responsive to local challenges.

Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General is currently exploring the potential use of CJC’s in three sites – London, Kenora and Toronto. Community specific needs assessments have been underway for the past few months “in order to determine whether Community Justice Centers can help address the intersection of poverty, homelessness, mental health and addiction with the criminal justice system.” These assessments are looking at ways to fill gaps in justice programming and build on existing efforts.

CJCs acknowledge that communities and their residents are key players in advancing meaningful access to justice outcomes. This model brings justice to people in a way that fits into their world. It’s not enough to understand local realities – in order for a CJC to be successful it has to be build trust through authentic and sustained community engagement. This kind of approach marks a significant operational and cultural shift for the justice system – arguably a necessary one.

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Sabreena Delhon is the Manager of External Engagement and The Action Group on Access to Justice at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Follow her @sabreenadelhon.

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