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Federal legislation tough on young criminals Add to ...

Canada incarcerates more convicted youth than almost any similarly industrialized country.

And new federal crime legislation is poised to drive those numbers higher, even though imprisoned teens are statistically less likely to get jobs after they’re released and, if anything, are more likely to reoffend.

Years after enacting laws that have been successful in reducing youth incarceration rates, Canada still sends five times more of its convicted teens into custody than England and Wales, according to data obtained from the British justice ministry and Statistics Canada’s justice arm.

At the crux of the debate is how to treat Canada’s youngest criminals. They represent a complex cohort in a diverse country, spread out across divergent provincial justice systems. The current tool is the nine-year-old Youth Criminal Justice Act, a law meant to strike a delicate balance between getting tough on repeat, violent offenders while ensuring other youth charged with crimes stayed out of jail.

It has succeeded in lowering incarceration rates, although Canada is still high compared with other OECD countries – a comparison many argue is misleading given differences in the way countries measure those stats.

But even its proponents argue the resources needed to create alternative sentencing and rehabilitation, let alone prevent teens from getting in trouble in the first place, aren’t there. Critics point to harrowing cases of youth crime and argue the law’s too lax. As it is, the system’s still torn between a focus on punishment and deterrence on one hand, and prevention and rehabilitation on the other.

During the recent federal election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to pass an omnibus crime bill in the first 100 days of Parliament. Among those 11 pieces of legislation is Bill C-4, which would expand the crimes for which youth can be incarcerated and the amount of time they can spend in custody. It also introduces principles of “deterrence and denunciation” as elements influencing the kind of sentence someone receives.

The omnibus bill’s jail-intensive emphasis confounds criminologists on both sides of the border: as Canada goes the tough-on-crime route when it comes to young offenders, many U.S. states are going in the opposite direction. They’ve found this strategy doesn’t work and, moreover, it’s bankrupting them by driving stratospheric costs to feed, house and monitor prisoners who often spend their lives in the penal system.

The problem with locking young people up is that, eventually, they get out. And when they do, they have a larger portion of their lives ahead of them than older offenders.

The costs go beyond the price to build jails and feed and house people inside them: young, working-age Canadians should be driving the economy as the country braces for the demographic crunch of aging baby boomers. If these young people spend their lives behind bars instead of in the work force, they act as an economic drain instead.

“It is actually a question of economic competitiveness,” said Queen’s University criminologist Nick Bala. “Are we going to have a significant portion of our youth essentially written off? I don’t think we can afford to do that.”

‘Criminal University’

Going to jail taught Oluwasegun Akinsanya a lesson. Kind of.

“It’s like Criminal University,” he said. “All you do in jail is sit down and talk – what he did, what he did, what he did. You realize, ‘Hey, that’s an opportunity.’ You learn from their mistakes. You’ll come back and do a better version.”

While studies have shown young, still-developing brains are more receptive to rehabilitative attempts, they’re also more susceptible to the malfeasant influence of fellow offenders, experts say. Even if teens are in jail for a short period of time, says B.C. Children’s Advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, “that recycles the kids into more offending.”

It was the fall of 2004, Mr. Akinsanya was 16 years old and in Brookside Youth Centre – sentenced to a month in jail for precisely the kind of crime for which the Youth Criminal Justice Act was supposed to keep teens out of custody: he breached a bail condition.

“Those were the worst 30 days of my life.”

His custody sentence was one of 8,610 meted out to Canadian youth that year, for crimes ranging from homicide and major assault to break-and-enter, impaired driving and breach of parole.

When Mr. Akinsanya got out, “I just went on a rampage … doing anything and everything I could to get my hands on money.”

It escalated until the evening of April 20, 2006.

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