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Editorial: Opening youth healing lodge, appointing Indigenous judge are positive legal system developments

Last week was a big week for Thompson, the north and the province as a whole when it comes to the legal system, particularly as it pertains to northern and/or youth offenders.
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Last week saw the provincial government announce some positive changes for the legal system in Northern Manitoba.

Last week was a big week for Thompson, the north and the province as a whole when it comes to the legal system, particularly as it pertains to northern and/or youth offenders.

First off, there was the announcement of two new provincial court judges for Thompson, one to replace Judge Todd Rambow, who has transferred to The Pas, where he lived before being a appointed to the bench, and another to fill a new position.

That Thompson could use another provincial court judge, and many, many other court staff as well, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. As the main justice centre for much of the north and the one in the region’s biggest city, there are always more than enough cases to keep the courts full, so much so that more than one case being heard here has ended up with charges dismissed not based on the merits of the prosecution’s case but on the fact that the Crown was unable to get the matter to trial within a reasonable timeframe, despite knowing that the clock starts ticking the moment a first court appearance is made.

Is one additional judge enough to make a significant dent in the backlog? Not likely, but the appointment of Vincent Sinclair, a lawyer from Opaskwayak Cree Nation, is noteworthy for other reasons, mainly his Indigeneity.

Most of the people who live in Northern Manitoba are Indigenous and an even larger percentage of those in the region charged with crimes are First Nations or Métis as well. But the percentage of people in the RCMP, the court system and especially among prosecutors, defence lawyers and judges who claim Indigenous heritage is far, far lower. Given that the ideal of the legal system is to give people accused of crimes a chance to be judged by their peers, increasing the number of Indigenous people in the legal system is desirable, especially since, more generally, public institutions should represent the demographics of the population as a whole.

Next up was the March 24 announcement that the provincial government would be consolidating its youth jail capacity in one of its two underused youth detention centres — the Manitoba Youth Centre in Winnipeg, which has averaged less than 50 per cent capacity over the past several years — by permanently shutting down the Agassiz Youth Centre in Portage la Prairie, Though that in itself affects northern youth offenders, who make up the majority of those in custody in southern Manitoba, according to the provincial justice minister, the government also said that part of the reason they wanted to shut down Agassiz was in order to shift more resources for youth justice to where they are evidently needed — in the north.

That led into the third big announcement of the week, as far as Thompson is concerned: the planned establishment of a healing lodge with open-custody beds in the city to aid the reintegration of young offenders into northern communities while also ensuring that youth aren’t housed in the same facilities as adult prisoners when possible, as sometimes currently happens with intoxicated persons at the Thompson RCMP detachment, for example.

While some people might feel that promoting healing for youth who have committed crime is a soft approach that won’t pay dividends, and while there are definitely some crimes committed by those under the age of 18 that warrant them spending time in youth jail, the reality is that, under current federal legislation, most crimes committed to youth are not going to result in them spending more than a few years in custody at most. At some point, they will get out of jail and it’s better for everyone if they have the opportunity to complete some programs and try to deal with the underlying reasons behind their behaviours in order to hopefully prevent some of them from committing further crimes, or escalating the types of crimes they commit. There is also  benefit in having young offenders spend at least part of their sentence, if they are placed in custody, closer to where their family and friends and home communities are, making it easier for visitors to come see them and familiarizing them with the services available in the area where they will be when they are free. Just as there are courts in many communities because of the principle that justice should be meted out in the same place where the harm resulting from an offence occurred, having punishment and treatment take place closer to home is a good idea, not only for cost reasons but also because disconnection from familiar surroundings probably won’t do anything to help troubled young people turn their lives around.

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