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May 21, 2006 - Edmonton Journal (CN AB)

Trial Run Yields Native-Justice Breakthrough

Alberta Looks At Expanding System That Emphasizes Healing

By David Staples, The Edmonton Journal

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ALEXIS FIRST NATION RESERVE - A unique criminal justice program that deals with offenders on the Alexis First Nations reserve has been so successful that top Alberta justice officials are pushing to get the program in place on other reserves.

It's unlikely that any other aboriginal justice program in the country has been more successful than the Alexis model at turning aboriginal people away from the abuse of drugs and alcohol and the crimes that go with those addictions, says Ernie Walter, outgoing chief justice of Alberta's provincial court.

"If you look at the system across the country, there aren't a huge number of real successes. I believe that (Judge) Peter Ayotte has done something very special here."

Ayotte, along with fellow judge Ray Bradley, Crown prosecutor Wes Dunfield and Alexis elders, established the program about 10 years ago on the Alexis reserve, 80 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Walter is now working with the Alberta justice department on expanding the Alexis model.

"I just wish I was able to patent this and move it out to other communities...," he says. "It's too positive not to be saying that we've got to try to expand this."

"I love this program," says Bronwyn Shoush, director of aboriginal justice for the Alberta government. "It's a fantastic example of a First Nations community building a strong relationship with judges and other people involved in the court system."

Most crimes committed by aboriginals -- theft, drunk driving, spousal abuse, vandalism -- are related to drugs and alcohol.

When an offender comes before the court in Alexis, Ayotte and the other three provincial court judges will usually refer the offender to a justice committee, made up of 12 to 16 Alexis community leaders.

If the offender is willing to admit his crime and wants to change his life, the justice committee will set up a rehab program.

The offender will then face the judge again, who will put the offender on probation, rather than send him to jail. Only in the most serious and violent cases do the judges send an offender to jail without input from the justice committee.

The offender must abide by the terms of his probation order for rehabilitation and report back to the judge, not just a parole officer, every few months to make sure this is happening. If the offender is back drinking, taking drugs and causing trouble, he will be charged with breach of probation, Dunfield says.

"We give people this opportunity, and we are prepared to be as flexible as possible, but (offenders) know, and I say it on the record all the time, 'If you don't comply with the direction of the court that has given you a break, I will ask for jail, and it won't be 14 days, it will be a real jail sentence.' And we do that."

The process has transformed many lives and led to fewer criminal cases at Alexis, Dunfield says. Court days are not nearly as long as they used to be.

"The population has increased, but we have less business."

Thirty-year-old business student Trevor Paul is one who turned away from alcohol and violence after going through the court-ordered rehab.

"I never thought I could change," Paul says. "But I did.... Everything kind of came together at the right time, and it worked."

Negotiations are ongoing for courts to be set up on the Enoch and Hobbema reserves, the first step if the Alexis model is to be put in place. Shoush says her department has been talking to Enoch chief Ron Morin and leaders of the four nations of Hobbema, who are considering whether a court and the program make sense for their reserves.

For the program to succeed on other reserves, a number of things will have to be in place:

* Moral, administrative and financial support from the Alberta justice department -- though, to this point, the Alexis program has run on a shoestring budget.

"The other really good thing about this is its bargain-basement price," Walter says. "It's probably as economic a situation as I've ever seen in the justice system."

* A group of aboriginal leaders on the reserve willing to put in time and effort to run the justice committee.

* Crown prosecutors and police close to the community and open to a healing model of justice, rather than a more punitive one. At Alexis, prosecutor Dunfield and Judge Ayotte now have close ties to the community. Leo Johnston, one of the four RCMP officers slain at Mayerthorpe, was so beloved at Alexis for his work there, the community has named a sports field after him.

* Dedicated probation workers, such as Sandra Potts at Alexis, willing to keep track of the numerous cases and the reviews required by the court.

* Judges open to educating aborginals about the law, then allowing them to take part in the process, by recommending sentences for offenders. Judges and prosecutors must also be prepared to take risks, Dunfield says, handing out probation rather than jail time.

The nightmare scenario -- one that Dunfield believes will comes to pass one day -- is that a recidivist drunk driver with numerous convictions will come before the court, promise he'll rehab himself, get probation, then right away kill someone in a drunken car crash.

"I dread that," Dunfield says of such an eventuality. "But I am prepared to take that chance, as are the judges I deal with, because we know that it (the Alexis model) works in such a high percentage of cases."

Dunfield, who has been a prosecutor for 32 years, says he has seen many cases where he has sent drunk drivers to jail and they've come out and killed or maimed someone in a crash, so simply jailing people isn't a perfect solution either.

"Behaviour doesn't get changed in jail. Jail is warehousing."

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