The Challenges of Youth Justice in Rural and Isolated Areas in Canada

Executive Summary

Selected provincial and territorial officials were interviewed regarding their perceptions of the key barriers and challenges to the provision of a fair and effective youth criminal justice system in rural and isolated areas of Canada.Although often viewed as the site of 'country life' or the 'mysterious, romantic north', rural and isolated communities might better be seen as places of real hardship, especially when it comes to the delivery of services such as youth justice. One respondent articulated this point clearly noting, " The greater the isolation, the greater the vulnerability and lack of services."

Consistent with the literature, the most frequently mentioned barriers to the delivery of a fair and effective youth justice system in rural and isolated areas are geography and distance; lack of services and resources; and a lack of community infrastructures. Some of the main findings that relate to these and other factors are:

  • Both general and specialized services are sorely lacking in most isolated and many rural communities, seriously affecting the capacity to deliver a fair and effective youth justice system. Justice services to support bail, diversion, alternatives, and reintegration are in scant supply; specialized services are needed for the serious alcohol and drug, fetal alcohol, mental health, and family-related problems that affect the lives of many accused individuals, offenders and victims, as well as the fabric of community life.
  • In rural areas, greater variation is observed than in isolated areas, because there is more variance in the availability of local services and/or their proximity to urban ones. Isolated communities are more similar to one another in their service and resource gaps and the prohibitive costs of providing services, training and follow-up in these areas.
  • Geographic limitations such as distance, weather and the cost of travel create inequities in criminal justice processing of offenders (bail hearings; pre-trial detention, alternatives and sentencing options) and adequate responses to victims.
  • Aboriginal communities located in rural and/or isolated areas of Canada experience wide variations in services and resource needs often as a direct result of their geographic proximity. The delivery of a fair and effective system of justice for young people is compounded in these communities by high unemployment, poverty, substance abuse, deficits in parenting skills, and lower skill and education levels.
  • The lack of community infrastructure means that it is often difficult to develop and maintain community-based programs. This, of course, varies with the geography, size, location and socio-economic status of communities, but is a particular problem for small, isolated communities.
  • Accused persons, offenders and victims are detrimentally affected by a lack of services and resources in rural and isolated communities. While there may be some variation for those living in rural areas because of the availability of local resources and proximity to urban areas, there is much less variability in isolated areas.
  • The most common problems for offenders are: a lack of alternative measures and specialized services to meet their rehabilitation and reintegrative needs; difficulties in getting to court and to appointments with lawyers, probation officers, workers etc; removal from families and communities; and being labelled as offenders.
  • For victims the most common problems are: a lack of victim and treatment services, community support and recognition of their needs; on-going proximity to offenders in small communities; and pressures not to report or participate in criminal justice or alternative processes.
  • Criminal justice workers (i.e., probation officers, community supervisors, community justice members) are often over-worked and, because of heavy caseloads and/or physical distances, are able to have only minimal contact with offenders and victims; 'burn-out' and rapid turnover are common among justice workers and service providers.
  • Experienced professionals are hard to attract and keep in isolated communities; community supervisors are difficult to find within local populations.
  • Interesting and useful innovations have emerged in response to the challenges. The use of telecommunications for bail, family group conferencing, provision of services such as psychiatry, and training are but a few of the many identified by respondents.
  • Possible solutions to overcoming the barriers and challenges of administering the youth criminal justice system in rural and isolated communities include integration of services and government ministry partnerships; increased financial support for more justice personnel and for enhanced services and resources; crime prevention and education; and greater use of telecommunication.
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