The Provincial Court of British Columbia building in Terrace on July 28, 2020. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)

Terrace councillors consider court watch committee to ‘create an extra level of accountability’

City staff are reaching out to Coast Mountain College about a pilot program

Terrace city council is renewing its plan to have a committee monitor local court proceedings and report back on sentences given to prolific offenders.

This time it’s going to ask if Coast Mountain College’s criminology program is interested in recruiting students, as part of their course requirements, to sit in on court proceedings.

“The purpose of the court watch was to create an extra level of accountability and also so we would be more informed as to what’s going on,” Coun. James Cordeiro said at a July 28 council committee of the whole meeting to discuss what to do.

“Ultimately if we are going to be plagued with prolific offenders and what appears to be a revolving door system of justice I think the very least we could have an understanding as to why the court sees it as appropriate that we should be just having to deal with the same people committing the same offences.”

Cordeiro, the owner of the Xanders Coffee on Lakelse Ave., has been a consistent advocate of setting up a court watch committee, citing ongoing anti-social behaviour and criminal activity in the downtown core.

“In theory I like the idea of a court watch, I am a little bit concerned about staff time and involvement, I really like this idea of possibly doing a pilot project with Coast Mountain as opposed to just diving right into it,” said Coun. Sean Bujtas.

Coun. Brian Downie raised questions about the need for a court watch committee, citing how few active examples are in other B.C. municipalities.

But Cordeiro responded, saying a court watch committee would empower victims and the public. He said he finds it difficult to express his frustration with prolific offenders in Terrace’s downtown.

“I can give you an example even this morning, my staff were confronted by a violent individual in the morning who was demanding be given coffee, swearing at the staff, when the staff threatened to call the police the response from this individual to the staff member was ‘it’s a good thing you are not here alone,’” he said.

“It’s that kind of thing that we are dealing with all the time, so when I hear it’s not a priority for other communities, I just really hope council has a real firm grasp of what the people in the downtown have to put up with on an ever increasing basis.”

He went on to say that the results from the court system are frustrating because he sees prolific offenders arrested and back on the street within hours.

The idea of asking the college’s criminology department if it was interested came from city staffers, with one advantage being the city would not have to recruit and train volunteers.

Cordeiro did say he still prefers the idea of a city-sponsored court watch committee.

There are still several details that would need to be sorted out for a court watch committee to become reality, like if volunteers with criminal records would be allowed to participate, and if there would be debriefings for volunteers who watch disturbing cases.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people connected to a case, like family and friends, are given priority access to the physically distanced courtroom. That means there may not be room for CMTN students or volunteers in the foreseeable future.

City staff are reaching out to CMTN to gauge interest in a pilot program. If nothing comes of those overtures staff will begin advertising and recruiting for the program. It would have a one-year term and council would review and assess its value after that.

Coun. James Cordeiro first pitched the idea of a court watch group in Aug. 2019. Its purpose would be to sit in on court proceedings and record what happens and report back to city council as part of a solution to limit crime in the downtown area.

Corporate administrator and deputy chief administrative officer Alisa Thompson presented terms of reference to councillors. She said that court watch programs are used in several jurisdictions around the world to observe court proceedings and assess whether or not courts are effectively serving the community, often monitoring gender and racial bias in a court system.

Thompson said that there has been family court committee in Richmond, B.C. since 1964 that has between 11 and 15 members and a council liaison. Volunteers attend family court and use observation sheets to record proceedings. In 2018 the Richmond committee had a small budget of $1,400.

READ MORE: Council briefs: RCMP rural files on the rise


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