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‘Moving the needle’ for victims of small-town and rural crime

Posted on March 5, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman

By Cal Braid
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

If you spend enough time in an Alberta courtroom, you’ll see all kinds of outcomes. Delays and adjournments are the status quo, and when it comes to sentencing, justice can range from curiously severe to dubiously lenient. More often it’s perfectly fair. On an average day in court, there are usually more bodies present to mediate trouble than there are troublemakers themselves. In the Taber court of justice, unfailingly, two of those mediators are from Horizon Victim Services and the Safe Haven Women’s Shelter Society. In and out of court, both perpetrators and victims need to be attended to in appropriate ways.

Minister of Justice Mickey Amery held a recent media roundtable to announce a $1.2 million Alberta Community Justice Grant. The funds will be directed towards organizations that can aid in resolving family, criminal and civil matters outside of the courtroom. The roundtable discussion was lively and wide-ranging as reporters jumped at the chance to ask him about crime and justice in Alberta, and the minister displayed aptitude in his role.

After Amery’s grant announcement, the subject turned to rural victims of crime. A reporter relayed a story about a liquor store robbery in his municipality and said the store owners were frustrated by an apparent lack of justice even though one of the perpetrators had been identified. They were also out $500 as a result of the theft. Amery was asked about how the justice ministry was handling the perceived leniency and a lack of restitution. Typically, when a perpetrator pleads or is found guilty, that individual receives a punishment along with a victim fine surcharge. The surcharge can be applied or waived by the judge depending on the particular circumstances of the matter.

“I’m just going to go a little bit back in history,” said Amery. “The victims of crime program used to directly compensate victims of crime. I think that the program was somewhat flawed in terms of the ability to fund the number of victims we have in this province. I think those who did receive it did not receive the type of funding that would address the losses and damages that they incurred.”

“The revised victims of crime program has taken sort of a community-based approach. What I mean by that is it’s using the funds account to help provide support and services to all communities in this province. We’ve moved away from directly compensating those individuals who have lost something as a result of crime. We’ve moved to a model that provides counseling and psychological support for individuals. The reason that we did that is we heard far and wide that victims of crime not only suffer a financial loss, but I think the bigger losses are those emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical damages and losses that they experience.”

He said there was no mechanism available in the old program to help assist people who were the victims of serious physical or sexual assaults or other violations, and no path forward in dealing with their emotional damage. The new program is intended to do that. Having said that, the question of direct financial compensation still lingers for victims of property crime, fraud and theft. That question wasn’t adequately explained as part of the new equation.

Amery said, “The new model promotes ongoing long-term treatment of individuals. I think it’s super-important. In meeting with our rural communities, we identified a problem that we hadn’t addressed before ever in this province. Many of the municipalities and councils had never met with their regional Crown prosecutors. What I ended up doing was asking our regional Crown prosecutors to develop a policy whereby (they) now will reach out to our municipalities and councils and establish a relationship with them. This is going to achieve any number of advantages.”

“The first one is going to be that our prosecutors on the ground are going to actually speak to and hear from the city council and find out exactly what is happening. I know we’re responsive to having a mayor or a Reeve make an appointment to come talk to us about it. I think that an ongoing relationship is essential.”

He said another advantage in having that done is that the Crown prosecutors can inform the council about details about trends that are happening within the community. “We all too often see a case where somebody is arrested and released and we all want to know why. Everybody wants to question why something is happening within a particular matter. I can’t talk about all of those things, but I can certainly provide general information to the public and communities and counsels about what is actually happening in a particular area. I think it’s important that the relationship stays strong, as it is between the police chief and council.”

He concluded, “None of these things that we talk about today, to be frank with all of you, are a silver bullet, but every one is moving the needle in a positive way. Eventually we’ll move that needle up and get to where we need to be.”

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