By Heather Patterson, Youth Justice Committee member
November marks an important anniversary for the Ponoka Youth Justice Committee (PYJC).
For the past 10 years, the PYJC has worked with youth who have committed minor offences and become involved in the justice system.
This committee has worked with approximately 80 youths from Ponoka and area alongside the RCMP, judges, Crown prosecutors and probation members in participating in restorative justice. For the community volunteers who have been involved over the years, it has been beneficial.
“It’s my way of giving back to the community. I see value in youth being held accountable for their actions,” said Craig Pateman, one of the six volunteers currently on the committee.
For youths who come to the program, it is a way to take responsibility for their choices and understand the serious consequences for both themselves, their victims and the community. It is also a way for youth to avoid a criminal record and make amends. In most cases, it is a one-chance opportunity that may not be offered again should the youth re-offend. Beth Reitz, committee member, says, “It gives us the opportunity, as a community, to help a youth who has made a mistake by allowing them the chance to make their wrong…right.”
Youths who agree to the charge against them meet with members of the committee at the Ponoka Youth Centre, where they discuss such things as describing the incident that took place, their part in it and how they think it has affected the victim. The committee is also interested in school attendance, hobbies, future goals, family dynamics, friends, or alcohol and drug use.
Through this process, PYJC seeks to understand both the events that took place, as well as the youth as a person.
“We understand that the incident bringing the youth to us is only a snapshot of who this young person is. It is always our goal to try to piece together the bigger picture and determine how we can best help the youth beyond this one incident. We want to build on strengths, even as we help them work through the consequences of their choices that lead to the charge,” explained Heather Patterson, committee member.
After the committee meets with a youth, a variety of different sanctions may be assigned. These may include writing a letter of apology, completing hours of community service, paying restitution to victims, attending counselling or completing other sanctions that are appropriate for the offense. If the youth completes the sanctions successfully, their file is returned and the matter is over. If they do not, then the matter continues to move through the court process.
The PYJC has been a proactive community response to young offenders in the past and members look forward being a positive presence in the future.
“The Youth Justice Committee, for me, represents the second chance that we all need,” explained committee member Haley Brochu. “So many of the youth we sit across the table from have just made split-second bad decisions.”
“They just need someone to believe in them again; believe that they are not bad, but that they made a bad choice and then give them a hand up to make a better one next time. We can offer them that hand up,” she added.
One hundred and thirty youth justice committees operate in Alberta with over 1,500 volunteers on these committees.