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By Hempology | February 20, 2006

VICTORIA–The solution to rampant property crime, small-time armed robberies and street-level drug dealing lies in a community-based system of justice and not in stiffer jail sentences for repeat offenders, B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal says.

Speaking at a recent Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce lunch, Oppal said drug-related crime is a social problem that has to be addressed by the community as a whole, not only the justice system.

“We can’t let the judges be out there all alone solving these problems,” he said.

“We have to get involved as a community. This is not a job the courts can do alone.

“We need to start treating the root causes of crime so we don’t have the revolving door syndrome we’re now suffering from.”

Oppal, a long-time judge who moved from the B.C. Court of Appeal to provincial politics last year, said his ministry is developing a community court system modelled on similar programs in more than two dozen locales in the U.S. and Canada.

By combining the penalties under the justice system with mandatory addiction counselling, mental health treatment or other rehabilitation tools deemed appropriate, cities such as Reno, Nevada and Portland, Oregon have achieved dramatic reductions in car theft and other forms of property crime.

“We could send them to jail, but they’re just going to come out worse,” Oppal said.

“If the person is suitable for treatment, we need to put that person through the system immediately.”

In other community court systems, offenders who refuse to undergo community-supervised rehabilitation would face the full force of the justice system, he added after the speech.

“It’s not a soft approach. If people are not amenable to that type of situation, they would feel the full force of the law.”

Victoria police chief Paul Battershill applauded Oppal’s community court proposal.

“I know that some of the Ontario drug courts mandate maintaining supervision over the offender for a period of several years,” Battershill said.

“I think it’s a much more accountable system. There’s more accountability for everyone.”

Statistics show that about 90 per cent of property crimes are drug-related, and the bulk of those are the work of repeat offenders.

Oppal believes stiffer sentences for violent crime aren’t effective because criminals operate on the assumption that they’ll never have to pay the penalty.

“The person who commits violent crime is not a rocket scientist,” he said. “They do these things on the basis that they’re not going to get caught.”

A community court system would require involvement from the Ministry of Health, provincial health authorities, the B.C. Corrections branch and law enforcement, he said. It will be at least six months before he can attach a timeframe to the initiative.

“It will require more resources, but it will also require the redirection of existing resources,” he said.

Despite alarm over the increase in property crime, gun violence and other major crimes are on the decline in B.C., Oppal said.

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