July 22nd, 2018

The game of their lives

By Shurtz, Delon on April 2, 2018.

Delon Shurtz

Lethbridge Herald


In the Old West, an outlaw who had his case heard by a “hanging judge” didn’t have much hope for a lenient sentence. Even if he wasn’t hanged, the best he could hope for was jail or a labour camp.

Back then there weren’t any other options, and often if someone was caught stealing a cow or robbing a bank, justice was as close as the nearest rope and tree.

Today, however, judges have a few more options: discharges, conditional sentences, probation and diversion programs are all alternatives to jail. Many judges try to think outside the box, especially when considering a sentence for a youth who has committed a crime. And if the crime is not too serious, and there’s a good chance for rehabilitation, there are many things a judge can do other than send someone to jail.

For example, in September 2016 Judge Derek Reman presided over the case of a 12-year-old boy charged with assault with a weapon and possession of a weapon. Redman, who knew the youth didn’t have a criminal record and had already spent seven days in custody, saw an opportunity to help the young boy, and placed him on probation for 12 months. He also knew the boy liked basketball so he ordered him to practice dribbling and shooting a basketball for at least five hours a week. When the boy said he didn’t own a basketball, Redman bought him one.

“People tend to do better when they’re doing something they have an interest in and passion about,” Redman says.

That kind of sentence won’t work for everyone, and likely for only a very few. But Redman appreciates the benefits of alternative sentencing, which is perhaps why he was quick to accept a program that, on first blush at least, sounds way outside the box.

Lance Grigg, an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge, read the story in the Lethbridge Herald about Redman’s unusual sentence, and he had an idea for another one.

“The faculty of education, Alberta Justice and the faculty of health sciences are collaborating on an initiative that uses chess to help youth involved in the criminal justice system make better decisions,” Grigg says.

He says playing chess helps the youth think about the consequences of their actions and plan for more hopeful futures.

“In short, the team is using chess to improve the executive functioning of these youth involved in the criminal justice system.”

The team to which Grigg refers comprises himself, Monique Sedgwick, associate professor in the faculty of health sciences, Jeffrey MacCormack, assistant professor in the faculty of education, Riley Kostek, a teacher at Victoria Park high school and first-year grad student, and Josh Markle, an instructor in the faculty of education.

Sedgwick admits she’s not a chess player, but she’s played a few short games, enough to teach her the very things the team is trying to teach the youth recommended for the program.

“I’ve learned there are consequences to every move,” she says. “So they get lessons relating to chess, and hopefully that will transfer to everyday life.”

Youth ages 12-18 who participate in the program don’t just learn to play chess; they’re also part of a study into the negative effects of punitive juvenile sentencing, which include poor social outcomes, school dropout rates and low rates of employment. The study is designed to explore the experiences of youth involved with the chess program.

Markle and Kostek, who are research assistants and chess instructors for the program, say the youth appear to be having fun. Markle says one boy even finished the program but continues to come back.

“Definitely most of them are enjoying it,” Kostek agrees.

But while having fun is important, learning chess as part of an alternative sentencing option can have a much greater impact, and Markle and Kostek point out the game improves a player’s critical thinking and helps them build the capacity to make correct choices.

It’s not always clear what motivates risky behaviour, but deficits in executive functions could be one cause. Executive functions are a collection of self-regulatory and managing functions that are responsible for controlling cognitive processes like reasoning, problem solving, paying attention, organizing, planning, remembering, focusing and multitasking.

The team believes chess can be a powerful tool for executive function instruction because each chess move provides the players with an opportunity to respond to circumstances, regulate emotions, consider options and anticipate consequences; skills that may be lacking in youth involved in the justice system.

Grigg leads the 25-hour Chess for Life program at the U of L where participants learn the rules of chess, common chess strategies, and the game’s relevance for life in general. Youth learn they have to see the big picture, in this case the entire chess board, to make the best decision and find the best move.

Crown prosecutors Erin Olsen and Dawn Janecke, as well as probation officers, are also important to the program since they make the recommendations to the judge.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” Olsen says.

The veteran Crown prosecutor calls the program a novel problem-solving aternative that provides judges and probation officers with another tool in their tool box to help rehabilitate youth.

Already, the program has shown positive results, and team members hope to help more youth who must go through the justice system. But the team needs financial help.

“We do need funding in order to expand the program,” Grigg says.

Donations to the Chess for Life program can be made online at https://secure.e2rm.com/registrant/donate.aspx?eventid=238360&langpref=en-CA&Referrer=direct%2fnone

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