Those trying to get their lives back on track from addictions and crime have run up against limitations created by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Coronavirus precautions such as social distancing have affected community supports and counselling that are key to the success of wellness court, an alternative to the traditional court system.
“It has affected their ability to work on their plan with wellness court, but more so for them to be working on their recovery and their growth,” said Melissa Chung, manager of the specialized courts program.
Wellness court provides opportunities for an accused person to make positive changes in their life prior to sentencing, according to the court’s web page.
It uses counselling and support systems to help the offender work towards rehabilitating drug and alcohol addiction and manage potential mental health issues or cognitive challenges.
Some of the community supports available for program participants – counselling services, community corrections activities and community meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous, for example – have been suspended or altered due to Covid. Participants are having to adjust to phone counselling and rely on fewer support services to comply with the conditions of their wellness plans. The Tree of Peace and Salvation Army are among the organizations continuing to support wellness court participants.
“People are in wellness court in order to address criminal charges through positive participation in wellness activities, so it’s been tough,” said Chung, who works with clients to develop and carry out their wellness plans while under court supervision and attends hearings to report on progress to the court.
In spite of the obstacles, participants are trudging through.
Territorial wellness court saw three participants on Thursday morning report their recent progress with their health plans. The trio of men appeared before the court as part of a regular check-in through the specialized wellness court program.
One of the clients, who has “fallen off the wagon,” as Chief Judge Robert Gorin put it, said, “It has been a struggle since I returned from treatment but I know what I have to do.”
If offenders do not comply with wellness court requirements, they could be removed from the program. Gorin said, while he is confident the client can concentrate on his sobriety and meet his goals, he now has “two strikes.”
To be eligible for wellness court, “offenders have to want to make positive change in their lives,” according to the court’s website. “They have to accept responsibility for the crime they've been charged with, consent to participation and agree to the conditions of their release.”
Ngan Trin, a communications adviser for the Department of Justice, said although “program participants are working on changing often established negative patterns of behaviour and learning new coping and self-management skills,” removals from the wellness court program do take place “from time to time.”
In spite of the extra challenges offenders face with the closure of several support services, the court commended two of Thursday's clients for their progress and continued commitment to the program.
“For participants who complete their wellness plans, sentencing takes into account their efforts towards changing patterns of behaviour and improved lifestyle routines," Trin said. "They may receive a reduced sentence, which may include a period of community supervision from corrections.”
Participants appear in court every two weeks to update the judge, defense and Crown lawyers on activities and progress, though court appearances may become less frequent with positive progress over time.
Wellness plans typically span 12 to 18 months, and participants are in contact with program case managers, Covid shutdowns or otherwise.