COVID Stories: Keeping the Humanity in Justice – A Conversation with the John Howard Society of York Region

By: Summer Alkarmi, Engagement Coordinator

MCIS’ mission is to improve access to critical information and services through high quality language solutions. As part of MCIS’ Theory of Change, we are engaging with our partners to see how we could bring about social change together.

Since its establishment, the John Howard Society has been committed to providing effective services to assist in reducing crime and its causes. Internationally, there have been many efforts to promote humane responses to crime. Norway’s prison system, which is built on rehabilitation and not retribution, has helped to reduce the recidivism rate greatly in Norway. The recidivism rate is a measurement of the rate at which offenders commit other crimes after being released from incarceration. In the United States, a 2018 documentary titled “16 Bars” showcases the moving stories of U.S. inmates. In it, Grammy-winning recording artist Todd “Speech” Thomas, goes to a U.S. jail and conducts a music and recording workshop as part of a program that was designed to reduce the recidivism rate.

Tricia Samaroo and Erika Chang, from the John Howard Society of Ontario, sat down with MCIS to discuss the critical work they provide the York Region community and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their work.

MCIS: Can you tell us more about the John Howard Society (JHS) of Ontario? 

JHS: On a provincial level, the John Howard Society of Ontario has worked to keep the humanity in justice for more than 90 years. Today, it continues to build a safer Ontario by supporting the people and communities affected by the criminal justice system. The John Howard Society of Ontario has 19 local offices offering more than 80 evidence-based programs and services focused on prevention, intervention, and re-integration across the province. These programs range from helping youth develop life skills that will help them achieve their full potential, helping families navigate issues of criminal justice, to providing job training for people leaving incarceration so that they can continue to contribute to their community in a meaningful way.

The JHS promotes practical equitable policies, while raising awareness of the root causes of crime and calling on Ontarians to share responsibility for addressing them. Within the system itself, it advocates for the fair treatment of every individual and each year its work impacts the lives of more than a 100,000 Ontarians.

Its local office in York Region was founded in 2010. In years prior, the John Howard Society affiliates located in surrounding areas received a number of inquiries in request for service from community members and even other organizations within York Region. In many cases, surrounding John Howard offices were able to respond. However, as the region grew, it became increasingly difficult for the surrounding local offices to provide direct service to members of the York Region community, in addition to their own community that they had to serve. Thus, the John Howard Society of York Region was established. Today, it serves over 3,900 people in the community each year, working to promote community safety and the well-being in the York Region. In neighborhoods and schools throughout the community, it offers programs that are proven to reduce crime and build protective factors in people’s lives. The JHS’ programs help develop life, relationship and coping skills. They are offered to residents of all ages, regardless of whether or not they’ve been involved in the criminal system.

MCIS: Can you tell us more about your role within the organization and how you became interested in this work?

JHS: Erika Chang is a Program Manager. Academically, she always had a propensity towards criminal justice issues and the legal system. Thus, she pursued studies in criminology. She later returned to school and received her Child and Youth Work Care credentials because of her desire to work with youth involved in the criminal justice system. She started working with the JHS on a part-time basis in 2010. Witnessing the impact of its work, she seized the opportunity to grow within the JHS and remains committed to its work. In her current role as a Program Manager, she ensures that the day-to-day operations of the JHS further its efforts in striving for effective, just and humane responses to crime and its causes.

Tricia Samaroo is the Program Coordinator of Adult Services. She became interested in working for the JHS due to her own life experiences. She knows personally how it feels to be misunderstood and to be going through something that is very hard to verbalize to the people who are close to you. As a young person, she was finding herself in many scenarios in which she did not want to end up. Some of the JHS’ clients are in similar scenarios. Thus, she pursued a diploma at Centennial College for Community and Justice Services, and later on pursued a degree in Psychology at York University. She also began working at the JHS, on a part-time basis, at its Newmarket courthouse. Now as a Program Coordinator, she works to adjust the needs of the York Region community, which is the community she has grown up in and where she continues to reside. 

MCIS: Can you tell us what programs you are currently running to reduce the recidivism rate, and also speak from your perspective and experience?

JHS: John Howard Society has a re-integration program. This program in particular follows what is called the APIC model, which stands for assess, plan, identify and coordinate. Through this program, workers can provide case management, brief support, referrals to community resources, and client advocacy. The program is open to individuals who are 18 years of age and older, who have experienced contact with the law. It is also open to their loved ones (family members, partners, etc.).

Individuals in this program are supported in completing goal planning for their own personal objectives. They are also assisted in navigating and accessing community resources that may benefit them and help their circumstances. Also, through this program, workers can help determine an individual’s eligibility for something that is called a ‘Record Suspension’, which was known in the past as a ‘Pardon’. A ‘Record Suspension’ keeps someone’s criminal records separate from vulnerable sector checks. The JHS helps individuals through both the application and the eligibility process.

In general, a number of the JHS group-based programs, such as the anger management program, can give clients the opportunity to learn practical skills and tools so that they are better equipped to make more positive and healthier choices. This experience helps them maintain a lifestyle that is free of involvement with the criminal justice system.

MCIS: Reflecting on our partnership, could you elaborate on the importance of establishing such a partnership, and, in particular, projects MCIS has supported so far? How have we helped you make a difference? 

JHS: The John Howard Society of Ontario’s partnership with MCIS started with a program back in 2013 and has since evolved into the strong partnership that it is today. MCIS now supports many facets of the JHS, and there are a number of projects with which MCIS has helped the JHS. For example, after looking at which languages were most requested by JHS clients, MCIS has been translating key documents, brochures and forms into those requested languages. This service has been extremely beneficial for the JHS’ clients, many of whom are unfamiliar with court processes and terminology. In addition, MCIS has been providing the JHS with in-person and virtual interpretation services to help better support clients in their preferred language.

Oftentimes, MCIS interpreters are visiting the JHS’ physical spaces on a weekly basis to assist clients with their one-on-one and group programming needs. MCIS interpreters contribute to improving the experiences for our clients, as they can receive assistance to have forms translated or can have program material interpreted as it is delivered by facilitators. Through MCIS’ support and the MCIS Social Benefit Fund, the JHS has been able to widen the scope of access to community members who otherwise would not have been able to benefit from the programs that are offered. Together, the John Howard Society of Ontario and MCIS work towards social change by making community-based services in York Region more accessible to individuals, by providing language services.

MCIS: Language access is not currently embedded in human rights. In your experience, what are the implications of someone not having access to language services?

JHS: For many of the JHS’ clients, becoming involved with the criminal justice system is often an overwhelming experience. The challenges that arise are exacerbated for individuals whose first language may not be English. Although they may be provided with interpreters for their court appearances, individuals are often first required to visit agencies, such as the John Howard Society, to access services. It can be very intimidating making that initial call to engage in programming. Therefore, having ongoing access to language services is a critical component to ensure clients have a better understanding of the system and what is required of them, in order to make informed decisions and see a successful outcome.

MCIS: The pandemic has affected all of us. How has it changed the way you work and interact with clients? What are the challenges you have worked through or are currently working through? And what opportunities have emerged as a result of that?

JHS: The John Howard Society of Ontario is very much driven by the service delivery aspect of its work. Determining what their needs are and communicating that the journey is going to look different for each individual, depending on what their personal experience has been and what their mental health needs might be, in-person, is vital for JHS to promote a successful re-integration process. Meeting the client helps us avoid simply dictating what a client needs to do in order to re-integrate, allows them identify areas in which they need help, and helps us work with them to prioritize what needs to be done first. For some, it may be obtaining housing, so that they can have a permanent address and start applying for jobs. For others, it maybe obtaining an ID. A lot of clients get displaced by not having a health card as they are unable to get their basic needs met, such as visiting a doctor’s office. Once that is sorted out, clients start to build upon that and become motivated to see success in other areas that they may need assistance with.

Having had to suspend in-person delivery of programming and services for clients, due to COVID-19, exposed the impact of restricted or limited access to services for our clients, who were accustomed to attending programs or meeting with a worker on a regular basis and who have now been forced to find ways to cope with their new circumstances. The JHS has had to understand what circumstances its clients are now facing to move swiftly and modify how it engages with clients, so that they remain connected to the JHS, and also with other resources within the community.

Given the risk of COVID-19 in institutions, people are being released at a higher frequency from correctional facilities in advance of their scheduled release dates. However, the typical pre-release planning that ensues is not always feasible. This means that individuals are often being released during various hours of the days, without a solid plan for where they would reside and how they would move forward from their experience with the criminal justice system. In an effort to help people succeed as they re-integrate back into their community, the JHS will be connecting with individuals being released from correctional facilities and engaging in intensive re-integration work with them. While doing this, the JHS will also be assisting them with basic needs, such as food, shelter, hygiene products and things of that nature.

Traditionally, the JHS has always thought that, as a service delivery agency, it had to see people in-person. One opportunity that emerged during lockdown is that, because the JHS was forced to modify its work to a virtual platform, it opened up access for individuals who previously were having a difficult time coming to its physical spaces. It is highly likely that this is due to transportation issues. York Region does not have a robust transportation system so clients have to transfer from line to line, which can either get pricey for them or get too complicated with the bus routes themselves. Having the option to meet virtually has been very helpful and has enabled the JHS to service more clients. 

MCIS: What are upcoming projects the JHS is working on for this Fall that you would like to highlight and share? How can MCIS’ community get more involved with the JHS’ work? Do you have any volunteering opportunities, translation needs or any other opportunities where we could help you further your mission of providing humane responses to crime and its causes? 

JHS: The JHS has recently received funding to pilot an evidence-based model, which is called the Collaborative Casework with Justice Involved Women (CCW model). It would like to evaluate the impact of this model’s approach to learn whether it produces better outcomes than the existing model used in the re-integration program. The CCW model is essentially an extension of the re-integration program, but it is focused on women involved in the justice system using completely different methods.

When it is safe to facilitate activities in person, the JHS would like to revisit a proposed idea that was discussed with MCIS, of jointly hosting a free pop-up translation clinic in a community centre in York Region to give individuals an opportunity to have their documents translated. This was scheduled to happen this summer, but has been postponed because of the pandemic. The JHS would like to host a pop-up translation clinic in the future because York Region is very diverse and it would be very beneficial to its clients and the community as a whole.

Access the John Howard Society of Ontario’s services:

Due to the pandemic, the JHS has suspended all in-person appointments and transitioned to remote service delivery until further notice. The office will continue to accept client referrals, as well as book and provide telephone, online and video appointments to clients. Please refer to the website for more information: https://johnhoward.on.ca/yorkregion/

Volunteer with the John Howard Society of Ontario:

Volunteers may aid with any of our programs, or may assist with the day-to-day operations of our office. They are an important part of the operation of the John Howard Society.

If you are interested in volunteering with the John Howard Society of York Region, please submit your application to admin@johnhowardyorkregion.on.ca.


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