Twenty years of professional experience tells me that discourse on criminal justice matters, particularly youth crime, has grown remarkably contentious in Canada, notwithstanding an overall drop in crime rates. Those who advocate for the rehabilitation of youthful offenders through restorative or community justice processes are often considered soft-on-crime "bleeding heart liberals" by their critics, likewise branded as tough-on-crime "neo-con bigots" who believe a young criminal ought to do serious time in custody to punish their transgressions and produce a desirable deterrent effect.
As entertaining as these philosophical disputes are, I'm convinced they don't serve a practical purpose for informing public policy or addressing youth crime. Regardless of one's political stripe or experience with the justice system as victim, offender or armchair observer, we must set aside polarizing positions and identify the common ground around which an intelligent approach to youth justice can be crafted.
In this respect, we must give precedence to economics over criminology. Few would argue that the $100,000 annual cost to house a youth in custody is expensive, as is our overall criminal justice spending of more than $15-billion a year, two-thirds of that dedicated to policing alone. If we also consider the tangible and intangible costs associated with crime - including health care, lost productivity and pain and suffering - this annual taxpayer investment balloons to more than $100-billion, which is nearly $3,000 for every man, woman and child in Canada. Surely this money could be deployed for much more productive purposes.
Contextualized in this manner, criminal justice policy must be led by prevention, not policing or incarceration. Decades of pioneering work by Rolf Loeber, David Farrington and others have taught us much about the causes of youth crime and the value of addressing antisocial conduct before the onset of adolescence. Given a view into any child's psychosocial functioning and the risk factors in their life, we can now predict which five-year-old is likely to be tomorrow's criminal offender. The path to delinquency leaves a visible trail with the typical youthful offender dispensing years of clues - such as bullying, aggression, cruelty to animals, fire-starting and stealing - before they enter the corrections system.
The science is clear, but why do we fail to act early? We're transfixed by an intransigent criminal justice system that appears incapable of changing. Populist politicians derive power dividends when they amplify anxiety using simplistic and exaggerated notions of youth crime and demonize the youth criminal as an amorphous arch-enemy of society, rather than deal with the seemingly intractable problems that give rise to crime in the first place. The default position thus rears its ugly head: We'll deal with the problem later with the expensive pointy-end stick of the criminal justice system.
Action is occurring, but it's insufficient. While Canada's National Crime Prevention Centre has helped to stimulate a movement toward evidence-based crime prevention, its annual $60-million budget is paltry when compared with the typical large city's police budget. Internationally, we boast some of the leading minds in this area, including Leena Augimeri of Toronto's Child Development Institute. They have created an effective 18-hour program for children 6 to 11 in conflict with the law called Stop Now and Plan - SNAP - which teaches them essential self-control skills, which are shown to predict multiple indicators of health, wealth and crime as accurately as low intelligence and low social class origins.
Yet, the organization struggles to have its programs become universal interventions for children, hence preventing an untold number of future offences. And years of service downloading have left community agencies without the resources they need to intervene - the most acute problem being the utter deficit of mental health services for children - and are left to watch their young charges descend into a youth criminal justice system that often fails to rehabilitate them.
Crime control is fast becoming an entrenched industry and a political tool to address social ills - such as addictions, mental health, broken families, poverty and social exclusion - that it's not designed to handle. Rather than trying to arrest or incarcerate our way out of the youth crime problem, there's an enlightened path: prevention. It takes courage and a longer view than perhaps our politicians have, but it's prevention that will save us from using punitive and often ineffective justice practices after it's too late.
Michael Chettleburgh is CEO of Astwood Strategy Corp. and author of Young Thugs: Inside the Dangerous World of Canadian Street Gangs and the coming Gladiator School: Life Inside Canadian Prisons .