Welcome to my Crime and Justice blog! I am a 19 year old criminal justice student at the University of Winnipeg. I advocate for prisoners' rights, human rights, equality and criminal justice/prison system reforms.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Changing youth crime act, will not solve any problems, especially when youth crime is declining

The efforts of the minority Conservative government to buy votes with its get-tough-on-crime approach can only be described as unseemly when it comes to the proposal to alter the Youth Criminal Justice Act with a new bill.
The bill, named after the victim of a youth crime in Quebec in an effort to make it more appealing to the public, strikes at the heart of the success of the YCJA.
The intent of the proposed minority Conservative bill is to remove the focus on rehabilitation of youths to better protecting the public.
Critics are quite correct when they call this bill "regressive."
The Youth Criminal Justice Act, in its current form, was enacted in 2002 to replace the old Young Offenders Act. Its success can only be described as remarkable.
Conservatives may say it's a failure because youth crime is still around.
Youth crime will always be around. The question is whether we respond to it a with a measured and effective response -- as with the current YCJA -- or wish to return to using the justice system to further the amount of youth crime in Canada.

For the record, the YCJA is in no way soft on youth crime. The bill may not be perfect, but it does balance the need to separate young people who need to be set on the straight and narrow from those who are just plain bad and must be dealt with by the justice system.
Under the old YOA, youths were herded into court on days cynically called "kiddy court" by lawyers and others. Youths would be forced to endure repeated visits to the courthouse, where they were treated like criminals in training.
That was no one's fault, just an institutional reality. But it channelled young people into a certain negative mentality that was only reinforced when the lightest sentence they got was a tongue-lashing from a judge.
Any amateur psychologist could predict the outcome of that: further rebellion.
The YCJA makes extensive use of alternative measures, such as restorative justice, to keep as many kids out of the courts as possible.
Keeping kids out of court prevents some, obviously not all, from being drawn into a culture of crime. And alternative measures force youths to account for their actions in a way that is much more effective than dragging them before a crabby judge.
The YCJA deals with violent and persistent young offenders effectively, and is designed to separate them from those who can be rehabilitated through alternative measures.
Another complaint is that youths who commit crimes are not identified publicly. The purpose of that goes to another concept that a lot of conservatives struggle to understand: the presumption of innocence.
Until it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a youth has committed a serious offence, his or her name cannot be released. Again, the act balances the interest of young people against public safety.
For the minority Conservative government to claim that the YCJA is failing to protect society just does not jibe with the facts. Canadians are not being victimized by youths to the extent that we can say the YCJA is failing.
It is quite the opposite, the YCJA is a great success through diversion and alternative measures in rehabilitating many young people.
The minority Conservatives are bent on buying votes through a get-tough-on-crime approach.
To do it by sacrificing this successful piece of legislation will only damage Canadian youths.

OTTAWA - Mental-health and youth advocates are denouncing the Conservative government's "regressive" bill to alter the Youth Criminal Justice Act, saying many of the proposed changes could lead to the incarceration of more youth with mental illnesses.
They further argue the bill goes against the principle of rehabilitating young people.
Testimony given Thursday at a justice committee hearing centred on the case of Ashley Smith, a mentally ill 19-year-old from New Brunswick who was originally incarcerated for minor crimes and committed suicide in a prison cell in 2007.
Bernard Richard, New Brunswick's child and youth advocate, who wrote a report on Smith's death, told the committee teens who suffer from mental illnesses are especially vulnerable while incarcerated and often do not get the services they require while in prison.
"Ashley cried out for help and she became progressively worse while in contact with the system," said Richard. "There are thousands of young Canadians out there suffering from mental illness, from behaviour disorders, from addictions, who come in contact with the criminal justice system. They should be diverted, directed to treatment - not incarceration. Inevitably, incarceration makes their conditions worse."
Smith was originally jailed as a youth in New Brunswick and eventually moved to the adult system, until her death at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.
Richard told the committee how Smith's behaviour worsened to the point that she spent more than two-thirds of her time in prison in segregation for at least 23 hours a day.
She had 501 institutional charges and 70 criminal charges, with more than half laid at provincial jails, and 168 incidents of self-harm.
"The question should be, does our criminal justice system provide mental-health treatment for youths like Ashley Smith? The answer is a glaring no," Richard said after the meeting.
The federal government's bill - also called Sebastien's Law in memory of Quebec teenager Sebastien Lacasse, who was killed by a 17-year-old - proposes several changes to the YCJA, most notably making "protection of society" a primary goal of the legislation.
It would simplify the rules to keep "violent and repeat young offenders" in pre-trial detention when necessary, require the Crown to seek adult sentences for some serious crimes, such as murder and aggravated assault, enable courts to impose "more appropriate sentences" on violent and repeat offenders and would give judges discretion to publish the names of young offenders convicted of violent offences.

"We recognize that it is much easier to rehabilitate a young person than an adult. Therefore none of our proposals would change the importance of rehabilitating young offenders. Sebastien's Law would provide additional tools for the courts when dealing with violent and repeat young offenders who threaten public safety,"said Pamela Stephens, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.
The bill would also add "deterrence and denunciation" to the sentencing principles. Some critics say those provisions are both ineffective and would take the focus off rehabilitation.
"I don't like the overall direction of the bill. I think it's too punitive," Richard said after his testimony. He also called the bill "regressive" and said any move to change the seven-year-old YCJA is "premature."
"I think that's embarrassing for the country, that we would be going in that direction at this time. What we need is a national mental-health strategy both for youth and for adults in the criminal justice system," he said.
Nicholson vehemently defended his bill at a past committee meeting.
"Canadians lose confidence in the youth justice system when sentences are insufficient to hold violent and repeat offenders accountable for their crimes," Nicholson said at the previous committee meeting held in May.
Still, opponents of the bill say that any changes will inevitably affect youth before and after incarceration, and what is most needed is rehabilitation, not harsher laws.
"We need to start looking at more prevention-based efforts, but in the case that young people do commit crimes and are serving a sentence, we need to provide appropriate means to re-integrate and that requires services," said Miguel LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers.
Liberal MP Brian Murphy said after committee that while the bill proposes some positive changes to the YCJA - such as making it illegal for youth to serve time in adult institutions - it may be going too far in copying elements of the adult model.
He said he will also file a motion asking Nicholson to release the reports gathered at a series of round tables on youth crime and justice, which were conducted across the country in 2008 but have not been seen by committee members.

We do not need to change the youth criminal justice act. The youth crime rates has been declining, so why the need to get tougher? There is no need. We need to place emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration, especially for youths and to address the root causes and contributing factors to their criminal behaviour. We should not remove rehabilitation from the YCJA! The courts need to rely less on imprisonment for youths, and more on alternative sanctions. Prisons for youth are the schools of crime. They teach youth to become better criminals and offer little rehabilitation and assistance when released. This does not make society safer. I also have concerns about more mentally ill teens being imprisoned. Imprisonment does not offer the range of services required for them and is likely to worsen their conditions. They will likely not receive any treatment and this is dangerous not just for them, but also for society. Deterrence should not be a sentencing principle for youths, or anyone! It is a myth and is not effective. Potential criminals are not deterred by the prospect of prison/punishment. They are often impulsive, not rational, cost-benefit weighing actors. They do not think about the consequences of their actions. We need to keep rehabilitation as the main focus of the YCJA. Youth crimes rates are declining.. so why do we need to get tougher? 

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