Youth Circles Project
The Youth Circles Project is an extra-judicial diversion program designed to provide effective access to restorative justice to youth aged 12 to 17 who are known to, or are suspected of, involvement with gangs; have been charged and would otherwise be in detention; and have been impacted negatively by the provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the Safe Schools Act. The Youth Circles Project began in December 2006 and project funding ended in March 2009.
Peacemaking Circles are built on the tradition of talking circles, common among many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, in which a talking piece, passed from person to person consecutively around the circle, regulates the dialogue. The Youth Circles Project has adapted the Circles methodology to inner-city urban environments to welcome participants from all cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds and provide a safe space for difficult conversations.
Of the 72 youth referred to the project – 53 male and 19 female – one-third were known, suspected or at risk of gang-involvement. As of March 2009, 44 youth completed the project, 17 were still involved and 11 did not complete (7 withdrew from the program, and 4 did not meet the criteria for program entry). In terms of referrals, 31 youth were referred by Court Probation Services as an extra-judicial measure, 20 were referred by their lawyers and the remaining youth were referred by a probation officer, crown attorney, judge, school or community agency. More than half the youth had no previous contact with the law. The vast majority of participants were White and Afro-Canadian, 15 to 17 years of age, and English was the preferred language for all of the participants.
The Peacebuilders’ Circles model uses a multi-disciplinary panel of trained Peacemaking Circle facilitators consisting of volunteer lawyers, mental healthcare professionals, community members and youth working collaboratively to guide the youth accepted into the program to ensure that they make choices that will keep them out of the criminal justice system.
Once identified as potential candidate, the intake worker assessed the youth’s eligibility based on whether they want to participate in the Circle, have parental permission, and are willing and able to take steps to help themselves. A series of smaller meetings followed: meetings with family, teachers and friends allow the youth to become familiar with the logic of the process. Following this, the main Circle brought together all the participants: the offender, the victim, their families and the Circle staff, effectively making the Circle into a safe space in which all the participants can share feelings and move towards a resolution acceptable to everyone. This process ensured that, unlike in the criminal justice system, the victim and the offender do not remain locked into their positions.
The program evaluation – based on case studies, interviews with youth, surveys of Circle participants and feedback provided by the staff – shows that the project met all of its identified goals, including creating a greater sense of ownership in the community, bringing together victims and offenders, creating common ground for individuals with diverse backgrounds and alleviating emotional suffering.
The data also indicates that fewer youth were sentenced to pre-trial detention as a result of the diversion of these youth into the project, and that youth participants demonstrated greater problem-solving and conflict resolution skills post-program. This indicates that the Youth Circles Project is indeed a viable multi-disciplinary, collaborative vehicle that enables communication among youth, community agencies, justice system and related agencies, professionals and community members.
A need to conduct a more in-depth evaluation of the outcomes related to the effectiveness of the Youth Circles project and an accompanying secure long-term financial commitment was identified. Instruments suggested for this longitudinal study include screening and assessment tools, tracking and monitoring systems, outcome measurements and computerized case management networks.
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