A First Nations Court will be an innovative process for the Williams Lake area, said Sarah Jackman, executive director of Punky Lake Wilderness Camp Society during a presentation to city council Tuesday.
“It looks a little different than a traditional sentencing court,” said Jackman who has been working with community policing on the initiative. “Rather than having a judge sitting up on a bench everyone is seated around a big boardroom table.”
At the table are the judge, Crown Counsel, defense counsel, the offender, a support person for the offender, sometimes a support person for the victim, and a council of elders that will advise the judge on sentencing needs.
“Maybe the elders know the offender and have a better ability to inform on personal background, family, or some challenges the offender is facing that have not been brought to the light of day or talked about in the court before,” Jackman said.
Options may include a jail sentence, but they may also require the offender to take drug and alcohol counselling, education or work experience, to deal with whatever things in their lives are lacking and leading them back to unwanted behaviour.
And with First Nations court, the offender is brought back to court every few months to report to the judge and council of elders to give them a progress report.
“As a group they go over it and decide if they need to make changes to the plan or if it is going along great,” Jackman said, noting if it is successful then the offender will be set free to go on his or her own after being given appropriate treatments such as housing.
First Nations court is all about personal accountability, Jackman added.
“You have to apply to be a part of this process, it’s not just given to you. It has to be something where you are willing to plead guilty and admit wrong doing and talk about why you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing.”
Making amends to the victim and the community are also a requirement.
“That’s a lot more difficult than standing there in front of a judge, shuffling your feet and being told your getting six months probation. This is very much about taking accountability for your actions.”
Coun. Sue Zacharias said there are non-First Nations people coming into the courts who would probably respond well to similar intervention.
“Maybe a few years down the road we will see some lasting change,” Zacharias said.
Jackman said she has visited existing First Nation courts in the province, has been applying for funding and inviting former judges and elders from other communities to come assist Williams Lake’s efforts to develop the First Nations court.
“We are also hoping to get funding for an administrative position in the court house so we are not stretching the capacity of the court staff,” Jackman said.
Jackman has been in touch with the Kamloops First Nations Court and has invited council to attend and observe the proceedings there with her. Mayor Walt Cobb, Coun. Craig Smith and Zacharias said they would be interested.
First Nations Courts are all different than one another, Jackman said.
The one in North Vancouver will hear cases that are indictable offences that involve longer sentences and more jail time, while the one in New Westminster only hears files that won’t result in jail time.
“We will have to discuss with this community and the First Nations communities exactly what our criteria is going to be and who exactly we want to be able to access this court proceeding,” Jackman said. “We have support of all of our provincial court judges and we have support from Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree who is the head of the provincial court in B.C.”