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From the OJEN Blog

OJEN’s Together 180 pilot program exceeds expectations

After 3 years, OJEN’s pilot justice education program for youth in custody or on probation wrapped up at the end of 2023. Together 180 (T180) was funded by the Department of Justice Canada’s Youth Justice Fund and the Law Foundation of Ontario to support the successful rehabilitation and reintegration of youth in custody and on probation.

OJEN developed a program that followed the interactive, inclusive, youth-centered approach successfully used in all of our outreach initiatives. It features a games and scenario-based approach to learning and offers a variety of incentives for participation. Over several sessions, youth gained knowledge and skills to navigate post-custody challenges such as securing housing and employment. It provided them with reliable sources of public legal information and community support. It also facilitated connections between the youth and justice sector professionals that fostered empathy, understanding, and mutual respect.

Launching T180 during the COVID-19 pandemic

T180 was launched in 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It had been planned as a 7 to 10-session, interactive, in-person program at youth custody facilities. As a result of social distancing protocols, this was no longer possible.  OJEN modified the multi-session program for online delivery. As centres began to open again in the second half of 2021, more modifications were necessary to develop a hybrid delivery model. OJEN staff remained flexible and responsive to the needs of our community partners throughout this time.

Despite the challenges, T180 was a great success. The program ran 20 times, with over 160 unique workshop sessions. Over 180 youth in custody participated. We exceeded the goals we had set for the program.

Most importantly, youth participants resoundingly reported an increase in knowledge of their legal rights and responsibilities, and a new awareness of the support systems available to them. The effectiveness of the T180 program is clearly demonstrated in the post-program youth participant feedback and survey results.

“[The program was] really helpful. Every facility should have this.”

– Youth participant, Sprucedale Youth Centre

“…you explained rights and laws in a way we could understand… in a meaningful way.”

– Youth participant, Sprucedale Youth Centre

Vital contributions of the Youth Leadership Team

Several factors contributed to the program’s success.  One major factor was the involvement of the Youth Leadership Team (YLT). Over the life of the program, 19 youth worked with OJEN as YLT members. They included youth who had personal experience with probation programs or had been in closed custody facilities themselves. Their contribution was a vital aspect of program design, delivery and evaluation.  OJEN often implemented the YLT’s suggestions into the program throughout its ongoing evolution. Their insights into activities that would resonate with youth participants was extremely important.

YLT members agreed that the experience also helped them refine their leadership skills and built their confidence. They, as well as the program participants, benefited by learning about their rights.

T180 was a greatly appreciated experience. After being a youth who once navigated the justice system with angst and fear, it was a healing experience to be a part of the skill and knowledge building that is preventive work within the field. Watching youth gain confidence, understanding, and connections is my greatest highlight. Knowing many of the youth that we worked with will implement the knowledge they’ve gained from T180 starting from within the institution that holds them, I believe the T180 program is a great tangible tool for
youth reform.”    

– Youth Leadership Team member

Justice sector volunteers and youth engage in shared learning

Another important factor was the contributions of justice sector volunteers (JSVs). Over 60 lawyers, legal clinic staff, reintegration and youth outreach workers, government staff, and other justice sector professionals, participated in the program over its 3 years. They not only provided legal information, they also listened to youth discuss their experiences with the justice system and their ideas about how the system could serve them better.

 “Meeting and connecting with the youth, and hearing their perspectives and what they actually want and need while in custody was the most valuable aspect of the program.”

– Justice sector volunteer

Youth participants embraced the opportunity to speak directly with the justice sector professionals on a broad range of legal topics. They were also interested in hearing about their lived experience and how they got started in their law or youth justice careers. This direct interaction resulted in youth reporting an increased comfort level when engaging with legal professionals.

“[I] feel more empowered to advocate for myself and speak to people in the justice system.” 

– Youth participant, Roy McMurtry Youth Center

As a pilot program, Together 180 demonstrated its potential to empower youth and facilitate positive changes both within and beyond the justice system.  Feedback collected throughout the program from youth participants, Youth Leadership Team, Justice Sector Volunteers, and community partners, provides valuable insight into what is possible for this program going forward. 

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