This Winnipeg court is trying to fix how it handles its youngest offenders — one kid at a time

A girl who appeared in court in Winnipeg in March was one of many young people whose cases are being heard in a new kind of youth court that started last year. The girl can't be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. (Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics - image credit)
A girl who appeared in court in Winnipeg in March was one of many young people whose cases are being heard in a new kind of youth court that started last year. The girl can't be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. (Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics - image credit)

The charge before the court was assault, the accused a 14-year-old girl in black-and-white Nikes. It was her first time being charged with a crime, and she felt her nerves bubble up inside her as she walked through the heavy wooden doors into a courtroom on the fourth floor of Winnipeg's towering law courts building. The only time she'd seen something like this was in the movies.

She grabbed a seat near the back and watched as the room filled up with other young people like her, more and more filing in until the gallery in Courtroom 402 on the March Monday morning was a sea of basketball shoes and sweatpants, high-tops and jeans.

Some, like her, were there with a social worker. Others were with their families, younger siblings clutching their mothers' hands. Some were completely alone.

"Order, all rise," the clerk said, and the young faces in the room snapped forward to see Manitoba provincial court Associate Chief Judge Lee Ann Martin enter in a black judicial robe, taking a seat at the front of the courtroom as lawyers in suits stood waiting.

The girl's case was number 12 on the docket, and as she listened for her name to be called she wondered what was going to happen to her after what she'd done.

Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics
Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics

It happened at the group home she was living in last year, she said, back when she was 13 and struggling with an alcohol addiction that once sent her to the hospital. The girl (who can't be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act) got drunk one day. Scared and angry, she ended up punching one of the workers in her group home and getting hauled to the police station.

But that wasn't her life anymore. She'd been able to stop drinking. Stayed out of trouble. She'd even gotten ahead of schedule in coursework at her alternative school.

Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics
Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics

Good things happen when you're doing good things, her social worker reminded her on the way to court that morning.

And as they sat beside each other in the courtroom that day, the assault charge hanging over them both, they waited to see if it was true.

As it turned out, the lawyers and judge they found themselves with had also been trying to start fresh — with a new type of court created for young people just like her, in the hopes of keeping them from ending up back in the justice system by welcoming them into it right from the beginning.

A fresh start

The change had been a long time coming, as it became clear something just wasn't working in Winnipeg's youth court system.

For one thing, the cases seemed to be getting more complicated. Over a few years, the number of cases that required what's known as a conference — a helpful but resource-intensive type of meeting that brings together everyone in a young person's life, from guardians and kookums to teachers and action therapists, to help find solutions in their case — went from just under half to nearly every case, Associate Chief Judge Martin said in an interview.

Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics
Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics

Many cases were also taking so long that by the time they appeared before a judge, the young person involved had already given up on coming to court at all — leading to more charges against them. Most, if not all, of the young people showing up to court were dealing with heavy issues that had likely led them there in the first place, from mental illness to addiction to poverty to trauma.

"It just begged the question: what is going on, and what do we need to do to assist?" the judge said. "To make sure that the youth criminal justice system is working better, and that we're contributing to some solutions?"

They needed a new kind of courtroom: one that would get youth as young as 12 and as old as 18 in front of a judge to sort out problems and get them the help they need — fast. So about a year ago, Manitoba's provincial court made one.

Now, instead of waiting months for a single case to be dealt with, the new out-of-custody youth intake court brings together everyone — including a judge, Crown attorney, defence lawyer and a long list of young people accused of crimes — in the hopes of sorting out issues quickly from the very beginning. They do this about twice every month.

The young people who end up in that courtroom are ones who are "just at the edge" of the justice system, said Hillarie Tasche, a longtime youth Legal Aid lawyer who runs the new court.

Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics
Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics

While they've been accused of something serious enough to be charged (often incidents like schoolyard fights, shoplifting or damaging property), they've also been deemed safe enough to keep living in the community while their charges are before the court.

That means the court has to strike a delicate balance between showing them the system is taking their case seriously, and not intimidating them in what is usually their first time seeing the inside of a courtroom.

"We want to let them know that even if they have been in trouble before, they can rehabilitate, and they can do better in the future — and that no one has given up on them," Tasche said. "But in the immediate [term], for their specific actions at this time, we have to take it seriously and we have to have a meaningful consequence."

WATCH | How a new Winnipeg youth court is doing things differently:

But the new system also means cases that don't necessarily require a tough punishment are dealt with faster, too. Sometimes, charges end up getting pulled out of the regular court system, if the young person agrees to complete programming or other tasks through something called diversion.

Or they may be dealt with through a stern lecture from a judge, or even stayed entirely — sometimes as early as Day 1, Judge Martin said.

"And sometimes you get some pretty big smiles from those youth who otherwise have been doing very well and are able to continue on going to school, leading their lives and making sure that they don't have to come back to court."

'I'm not all these bad things'

It was the kind of approach the 14-year-old girl needed as she waited with her social worker in court in March.

She'd come to court once before, months earlier, still struggling with alcohol and unwilling or unable to engage with the offer prosecutors had made to dismiss her charge if she agreed to participate in restorative justice programming.

So the court decided to delay her case to give her a bit more time to come around.

When she came back in March, she was ready. She was almost done Grade 9, and had started thinking about what the future might hold beyond her foster home and her brief stint in the justice system — how she wanted to go to school to study business, to do something good with her life.

She also knew the assault charge coloured how everyone looked at her, from the police to workers in the child welfare system, and she wanted to deal with it and get on with her life.

"I'm trying to, like, show them I'm a good person," she said in an interview, the silver braces on her teeth peeking through as she spoke.

"I'm not all these bad things you have me listed as."

The court was ready too — to meet her exactly where she was and give her a shot to put that one bad thing she'd done behind her, once and for all.

"If everything goes really good, this is our last time seeing each other," lawyer Tasche told her in the courtroom that day, dropping her lawyerly cadence for a minute to speak directly to the girl in the gallery, making sure she understood everything that was happening.

It's the kind of connection that's become a mainstay of the new courtroom, where lawyers and judges work together to put out fires as they come up, responding with everything from heart-to-heart discussions with young people to second chances to correct their mistakes.

In one recent court sitting, a mental health report revealed a girl who had been struggling with the court program she'd agreed to complete was actually dealing with depression — so the judge and lawyers spent time with her at the end of the session to talk about what was going on in her life, Tasche said.

During another, young people who didn't show up for their appearance got put on what was unofficially called the "find-them list" — a roster the lawyer went through one by one, calling each person to figure out why they didn't make it, instead of having the court automatically issue a warrant.

In one case, a young person's whole family had gotten COVID-19, and no one knew who to call to say they couldn't leave home, Tasche said. In another, the family had just lost their home.

Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics
Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics

In flipping through the youths' court orders to find their contact details — paperwork that also has their signature on it — the lawyer said she's often faced with a visual reminder of just how young some of the offenders they see in court are.

"When we see a young person's … little signature that might look like the signature of a four-year-old, we know that they're going to need support to get to court," she said. "They can't do that alone."

'We always need to hope and aim high'

The new court could also have broader implications — by intervening and getting young people on a better path as early as possible, it creates a chance to prevent them from becoming kids and teens who end up offending in worse ways later on.

The creation of the new youth court also comes as young people who are accused of serious crimes seem to be drawing the attention of more and more people in Winnipeg — including the city's police chief, who recently called a news conference to discuss a series of violent attacks alleged to have been carried out by youth living in foster or group homes.

Those kinds of concerns in recent months have been punctuated by cases like the downtown stabbing death of a 14-year-old girl, leading to a second-degree murder charge against a 17-year-old boy.

For Judge Martin, who has largely presided over youth cases in her 17 years on the bench, it's clear the court has a role to play in responding to young people who commit crimes — though even that is just one piece of the puzzle.

"We always need to hope and aim high," she said.

"We certainly understand it's very concerning to have such young people involved in some of these allegations. But everyone is welcome to come to court to see — to understand — what is happening.

"The out-of-custody youth, if people saw or heard what was going on in their lives and what they were doing, I think [that] might add a little bit of understanding as to why some of the youth find themselves in these positions and why they are offending in the way that they do."

Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics
Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics

In roughly a year since the new court started, the judge said she's already seeing signs of its effects, including a drop in the number of youth matters being set for trial.

Now, she said they're looking at whether there's room to expand it.

'I'm going to do good in life'

Walking out of Courtroom 402 after her March appearance, the 14-year-old girl who was about to put an assault charge behind her thought again about her future.

She considered the work that still lay ahead for her, and how she would need to stay focused and determined so she could complete her program and not wind up back in court. You can't just sit back and expect things to work out for you, she knew. You have to make things work for yourself — and she was finally ready.

As she contemplated her future, she also thought about something from her past that she'd never quite put out of her mind, something that a group home worker had told her back when the girl was still grappling with addiction.

As you walk down the street looking at people living in bus shelters, the worker told her, what you're seeing is your future. That's all there is for you, the woman told her.

Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics
Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics

But the girl knew she was wrong — that was the last thing she wanted to be. She knew what she saw when she imagined her future, and it was something bright, something worth working for. And she knew she was determined to get herself there, no matter what that woman or anyone else thought.

"I always remember it," she said. "And I remember telling her, I was like, 'I will never be one of those people — I swear.'

"I'm going to do good in life."