03/05/2014 06:33 EST | Updated 05/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Specialized B.C. court sees greater drop in recidivism than traditional courts

VANCOUVER - Canada's first court to link repeat offenders to social programs such health and housing has met its goal of cutting crime, says an evaluation into the pilot project in Vancouver.

The document released by the Justice Ministry on Wednesday says the Downtown Community Court, which was established in 2008, has led to a greater drop in recidivism compared to a traditional court that does not connect offenders to services in the community.

The study compared 250 people sentenced in community court to 250 others sentenced in the neighbouring provincial court between April 2008 and March 2011.

It analyzed the number of offences committed by the two groups before the four-year period to the number committed afterwards.

The community court in the city's impoverished Downtown Eastside saw an average drop of 2.3 offences per person, compared to 1.35 offences per person in the provincial court, the report said.

The main idea behind establishing the community court in Vancouver was to help offenders break from the cycle of crime, homelessness, and mental health and addictions issues prevalent in the Downtown Eastside.

Former B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal, who was in office when the community court opened, said he was encouraged to see its progress.

"When you look at chronic offenders, 50 per cent at least are suffering from some kind of mental illness," he said Wednesday.

"Others are either homeless or addicted to drugs and alcohol, so the idea was to try and rehabilitate people so they don't become chronic offenders or repeat offenders."

The court was also created to help the justice system run more efficiently by taking on cases that normally would be handled by the nearby provincial court.

The evaluation report said that court seemed to be more efficient after the community court was established. But it noted that the increased efficiency could be part of a long-term trend rather than the community court's help with the case load.

The community court is handling a heavier case load than was originally expected, so changes may be needed to ensure cases are being processed in a timely fashion, the report said.

Case management teams assigned to offenders in community court help them access rehabilitation services or treatment programs and reduce the risk of re-offending.

The court also holds events such as public forums, open houses and barbecues to engage with the community it serves.

The report said a survey of community members show some believe offenders are benefiting from the initiative, while others think access to services such as drug treatment and permanent housing need to be improved.

The B.C. government said in a release that it expects to use the evaluation of the Downtown Community Court to help develop a broader strategy for specialized courts in the province.