They also argue it would go against the principle of rehabilitating young people.
The testimony given at a justice committee hearing hinged 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 bill proposes several changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), including simplifying and amending the rules for pretrial detention to include those charged with "serious crimes" -which carry sentences of five years or longer, requiring the Crown to seek adult sentences for some serious crimes such as murder and aggravated assault, and giving judges discretion on the publication of names of young offenders convicted of violent offences.
The bill would also add "deterrence and denunciation" to the sentencing principles, which some critics say is 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.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson vehemently defended his bill at a past committee meeting, saying the changes would only target "violent and repeat young offenders" under 18 years old.
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 reintegrate and that requires services," said Miguel Le-Blanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers.
Liberal MP Brian Murphy said after committee that while the bill does make some positive changes to the YCJA-such as making it illegal for youth to serve time in adult institutions -it may go too far toward modelling the youth criminal system on 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.
I also think these changes are far too punitive, especially adding deterrence and denunciation. Deterrence does not work. Most criminals are impulsive, not rational, cost-benefit weighing actors. They do not consider the consequences of their actions or the prospect of prison. The emphasis for youth, should always be on rehabilitation and reintegration. Teens with mental illnesses should NOT be imprisoned. It will only worsen their condition.