A file photo of the Yellowknife courthouse. Luisa Esteban/Cabin Radio
For decades, the Northwest Territories arm of the John Howard Society has offered an alternative for people who can’t afford to pay legal fines.
Known as a fine option program, the service allows offenders to perform community service instead of serving prison time over money they did not pay.
According to its own legislation, the territory’s Department of Justice is mandated to provide this kind of programming by hiring third-party agencies.
But Robert Hawkins, executive director of the John Howard Society NWT, says the Government of the Northwest Territories hasn’t been following its own rules. For a six-year span in which he continued to provide fine option services, he says, his organization received no compensation for its work.
Hawkins said the GNWT had ignored his complaints and “refused to resolve the matter” but still requested both the program and a series of monthly and annual reports on its results.
“If that isn’t taking advantage of an NGO’s goodwill,” he said, “I’m not sure what is.”
Approached for comment in May, a Department of Justice spokesperson wrote that “a recently completed review of the Fine Option Program has identified gaps in its delivery.”
Pressed to clarify what gaps those were, how long they had existed and when the review was completed, department spokesperson Ngan Trinh stated: “These gaps existed for a number of years.”
Trinh said the review was completed in May this year.
According to Hawkins, the last formal financial agreement between the GNWT and his organization was established in the 2004/05 fiscal year.
In responses to Cabin Radio, the GNWT appeared to suggest that while money had been set aside for the program, a lack of organization within the Department of Justice meant the money never made it to the John Howard Society.
“The department can confirm that there was compensation for the program delivery in the existing agreements with the John Howard Society, however the department acknowledges that this was unclear,” Trinh wrote. “A lack of oversight of the program by the department due to staff turnover led to this lack of clarity, inconsistencies and program gaps.”
The John Howard Society offers rehabilitative and reintegrative services across the country and in the NWT, where the criminal justice system has been described as a “cyclical and costly use of resources.”
In 2009, then-Great Slave MLA Glen Abernethy, later the territory’s health minister, said the society was offering “just, effective, and human responses to the causes and consequences of crime.”
Hawkins says the issue isn’t just about money. He says his top priority is continuing to offer rehabilitative programming.
“I don’t remember us ever asking for a specific amount of dollars,” he said. “I just kept saying: we want a contribution agreement so we can promote the program, and so we can run it, because very few people know about the program.”
Asked why he didn’t simply stop offering the service, Hawkins says he felt pressured by the level of community need. To date, the John Howard Society still appears on court forms and other lists as the dedicated resource for people in need of fine option programming, and people keep showing up at his office.
“I’ve had single parents, I’ve had young people… I had one young man who didn’t have a job, got his fine turned into a fine option and came in with his form. I signed off on it, and he was able to go into the community and work it off,” said Hawkins. “So it’s put us in an awkward position.”
If the program stopped, he added, “who would we be punishing?”
When Hawkins finally heard back from the department in late May, he was informed that the territory would now place the fine option program up for tender. The department invited him to bid.
“We’ve been doing this for 18 years, and this is how you’re treating us?” said Hawkins, a former MLA for Yellowknife Centre.
He sees the situation as part of a wider issue.
“This is how the government treats NGOs,” said Hawkins. “They use them for the advantage of a very low cost, and have the highest expectations of delivery.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the territorial government has been accused of skimping on non-profits.
Earlier this year, Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland highlighted the amount the GNWT was willing to pay for a non-profit to run Inuvik’s warming shelter, compared to how much was allocated for the government to run the shelter.
“I’m wondering why, when the government operates it, it has a $2-million budget, but when a third-party NGO operates it, it has a budget of $560,000?” Cleveland asked.
Hawkins says he believes many of the territory’s non-profits feel taken for granted.
“It’s a race to the bottom,” he said. “NGOs have to fight for every scrap of funding they get.”