For 20 years, Red Deer Youth Justice Committee has been steering young people going down the wrong path in a better direction.
Committee chairperson Gwen Philip, who has sat on the committee for 15 years, said it’s been years since members dealt mostly with youth charged with shoplifting.
“Now we are getting cases that are more difficult like break and enters, theft, assaults, mischief, possession of narcotics — a wide variety now,” said Philip, of Red Deer.
Despite the seriousness of the charges, the courts rightly see in the majority of these youth that they can turn their lives around, she said.
“Going through our system, it’s like getting a second chance. A second chance to figure out what’s going on in their life and how to improve it.”
Red Deer Youth Justice Committee is a group of volunteers heading an alternative measures program for youth age 12 to 17 who accept responsibility for the actions for which they have been charged.
Young offenders are usually given 90 days to complete their punishment called “consequences” which could consist of apology letters, community service, counselling or attending programs, essays or posters, a donation to charity, and financial restitution to the victim.
Between 50 to 100 youth deemed less likely to re-offend annually go before a panel made up of three committee members for an opportunity to avoid a criminal record.
This year the success rate for completing consequences has been over 90 per cent.
Philip said victims have the opportunity to get involved in the process but unfortunately most do not.
“A lot of victims don’t want to get involved. They know (youth) are going to have some kind of consequence and that for them is fulfillment enough.”
So it’s up to the committee to make youth realize the impact of their crimes.
“We try to get them to think of all the damage, heartache, that they’ve caused the victim. We put the youth in the victim’s spot.”
Philip said it’s also about listening to the youth and discussing better ways of dealing with their problems and improving their behaviour.
Peer pressure is often a factor so learning to think on their own is a must, she said.
“After we’ve talked to them for a little while they realize that we’re there to help them. We’re not there to be really critical of them. We’re there to change their lives.”
Having youth commit to their education is quite important for the committee.
“I met this person on the street a little while ago who told me just by us caring enough to keep track of them in school, and sending them to counselling, that their whole life is so much better and they’re really doing in their life. That’s nice to know,” Philip said.
“We are there for the youth to help them become better members of society, really, and make a success of themselves.”