The BC Provincial Court has a history of working with communities to develop specialized courts to address specific needs. On May 6, 2021, the Court will open its 11th specialized sentencing court – its third integrated court – in Kelowna.
The Kelowna Integrated Court is the result of years of work by groups and individuals in Kelowna seeking to reduce crime and improve public safety by integrating health and social services with the justice system in order to address the root causes of criminal behaviour.
In 2018 an Integrated Court Steering Committee reported that Kelowna, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in BC, was experiencing increases in homelessness, drug overdose deaths, and crime, while access to affordable housing was decreasing.
After making a strong case for establishment of an Integrated Court, the group began working with the Court, the provincial government, the John Howard Society of Okanagan & Kootenay, the City of Kelowna, and other stakeholders on the details.
Who will the Integrated Court deal with?
Like the Downtown Community Court launched in Vancouver in 2008 and the Victoria Integrated Court opened in 2010, the Kelowna Integrated Court will focus primarily on offenders struggling with addiction, living with mental health issues, or experiencing homelessness.
An Integrated Court (sometimes called a “community court”) is not a trial court but eligible individuals may have bail hearings or plead guilty and be sentenced there. People who plead not guilty have their trials in the regular court system.
How will it work?
In an integrated court, agencies with knowledge of an offender meet with Crown and defence lawyers and a probation officer before court to share information about the individual’s needs and the resources available to address them. The lawyers present this information in submissons at a sentencing hearing to help the judge impose a responsive, timely, and focused sentence.
A variety of government and community organizations offering mental health and other services provide support and supervision for offenders bound by bail or sentencing orders, helping them lead healthier, more stable lives.
The constellation of services integrated with the new Court will:
Whenever possible, the Integrated Court will have the same judge, prosecutor, probation officer, and care agency staff to provide offenders with consistency and follow-up.
The goals of an Integrated Court include improving access to health, social, and economic services for the offenders it deals with; improving public safety by reducing recidivism; and holding offenders accountable for their actions in a timely manner. In addition to supervison in the community, these Courts impose jail sentences when necessary.
The Honorable Geoffrey Barrow, a retired BC Supreme Court judge, co-chaired the local Advisory Committee. “The goal of an Integrated Community Court is to address gaps in the traditional court approach for people whose interactions with the criminal justice system are a result of their substance use, mental health or housing challenges,” he said. “The Court seeks to do that by connecting individuals with the supports they need in the community and by monitoring their circumstances while they are subject to community supervision.”
Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie said, “Our Downtown Community Court in Vancouver and Integrated Court in Victoria have demonstrated the value of this model, where mental health and social services collaborate closely with the Court to support offenders dealing with mental health, addiction, and other challenges. The Court appreciates the dedication of members of the Kelowna Integrated Court Steering Committee and the collaboration that has enabled us to open this new specialized court.”
Photo credit: Gary Linn