The idea behind Canada's current strategy to fight youth crime was deceptively simple: Put teens in jail if you have to, but only if you have to.
It was supposed to strike a balance between two competing anxieties: that young people were committing heinous crimes and not being punished appropriately; and that locking up impressionable teens created criminals who would spend the rest of their lives bouncing in and out of the penal system.
"There was considerable concern around whether the balance was quite right in terms of protection of the public and rehabilitation," says Anne McLellan, the Liberal justice minister who brought in the Youth Criminal Justice Act in the late 1990s.
The act was both stricter and more lenient than the preceding Young Offenders Act: It sought to ensure that violent, repeat young offenders were locked up - but that they were the only teens who were. Other offenders would be handed alternative sentences or diverted from the system altogether.
In some ways, the law has succeeded. Since it came into effect in 2003, the proportion of the prison population under the age of 18 has fallen from 10 to 4.6 per cent. But Canada's youth incarceration rates are still considered high - thanks, some argue, to inconsistent application between jurisdictions and a lack of consistent funding for alternative programs.
When it comes to youth justice, argues Simon Fraser University criminologist Ray Corrado, the devil is in the details of the way each province deals with young offenders. British Columbia and Quebec, for example, have historically lower rates of youth incarceration; the rates in the Prairie provinces, and to a lesser extent Ontario, are higher.
"You have to go by province. … That sort of distorts the national picture," Mr. Corrado says. "Some provinces have done a great job. And the provinces that have high custody rates, they often have a distinctive profile of kids who have huge needs."
Manitoba's among them. It has a significant aboriginal population and has been struggling with youth gangs. That's what makes child advocate Darlene MacDonald so leery of the federal government's move to change the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Bill C-4, part of the Conservatives' omnibus crime bill to be passed in this government's first 100 days, would expand the crimes for which youth can be incarcerated and the amount of time they might spend in custody.
"The No. 1 way to create more gang members is to keep kids locked up together," she says. "That's probably the No. 1 recruitment."
Part of the problem simply boils down to a lack of cash.
In some places, community-based programs to help reintegrate youth into the community are working well, providing police and prosecutors with alternatives to incarceration. In other places, their records are poor.
"The resources didn't come with the [Youth Criminal Justice Act]" says Ontario youth advocate Lee Tustin. "In some communities there might be something available. In others, there's not."
Daren Dougall's job is to make those options available.
Frontenac Youth Diversion, the program he has run out of Kingston, Ont., for almost 40 years, provides alternative programs for youth who've committed crimes - anything from minor property offences to serious assaults.
Officers can send teens Mr. Dougall's way instead of charging them. Or they can serve their sentence in the community, through the program, after they're convicted. The consequences are determined through consultation with police and the victim, among others, and can include compensation or restitution. But the idea is to go a step further.
"In the case of kid-on-kid acts of aggression, they're usually going to be in the same social circle," Mr. Dougall says. "We really want to make sure those relationships are repaired."
When Canada's youth justice system is in the spotlight, it's usually because of extreme, individual cases of kids in serious trouble. When the federal Conservatives introduced Bill C-4 last fall, they named it after Sébastien Lacasse, the 19-year-old whose beating death earned his teenaged killer an adult sentence five years ago.
"It does go to people's underlying values," Ms. McLellan says. The very concept of young people committing heinous crimes provokes anxieties "that something more broadly in society has gone wrong."
It was one of these horror stories that precipitated one of the Youth Criminal Justice Act's most scathing indictments - Justice Merlin Nunn's 2006 report on a Nova Scotia woman killed by a repeat young offender who had just been released from custody despite facing numerous other charges. But damning as Justice Nunn's 378-page report is, it does not find fault with the act itself as much as how it's administered: Too many corners cut, too many under-resourced aspects of the system.
That's what has some critics worried about this latest piece of legislation. Youth advocacy offices for nine provinces and Yukon lobbied Parliament in March to stop discussion on the bill, provide evidence it would actually lower youth crime and improve public safety and, in the meantime, provide adequate funding to non-custody alternatives the Youth Criminal Justice Act was supposed to include. "Adopting the proposed amendments will not provide the desired public safety outcomes," the joint submission reads. "As recent literature points out, increasing incarceration rates does not work."
(PEI does not have a member on the council that made the submission.)
Ms. Tustin worries the push for laws like this stokes a politicized "fear of youth."
"The whole purpose of the [existing]legislation is to reserve custody for those serious and violent and repeat offenders … [This act]would enable a court to justify sending any young person to custody."
Incarceration is an investment with diminishing returns
From Trevor_CCW via globeandmail.com:
Having had the opportunity to work with everyday kids, young offenders and high-risk youth, I can tell you that the difference between high-risk youth and young offenders is often as simple as them having the opportunity to do something productive. Alternative education programs, health and recreation programs, art, music, sport and community-centred programming. Unfortunately, federal funding for many of these programs is drying up.
Now, you tell me - where's the money best put? In a few tens of thousands per program per year, in keeping these kids moving forward, getting jobs and paying taxes and becoming productive members of society? Or is it better put in the $90,000 to $250,000 per individual per year that it costs to incarcerate someone at the federal level?
Fundamentally, neither one approach nor the other can succeed without the other. Incarceration is an investment with diminishing to no returns if we do not take dramatic steps to prevent the crime in the first place. And prevention is only successful if those with whom we cannot intervene can be removed from polite society.
Some comments have been edited and condensed.
By the numbers
A dramatic decline
Youth in custody in 2002-03
Youth in custody in 2009-10
Source: Statistics Canada