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The Ontario Superior Court building on Jan. 29, 2020.

Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

Young people charged with crimes in Ontario are waiting longer for their cases to be resolved, prolonging their time behind bars or extending onerous bail conditions – a situation that disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous youth.

The finding is part of a comprehensive report on youth bail by the John Howard Society of Ontario that is set for release on Tuesday. The research draws on provincial justice data and interviews with people who’ve endured the youth criminal-justice system.

The report, titled Unequal Justice, portrays a system that made huge advances after the passage of the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003, but has slipped of late in its treatment of a vulnerable subsection of the population.

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Last year, The Globe and Mail found that racial bias pervades the adult correctional system as well. An investigation revealed that risk-assessment scores used to determine parole decisions, treatment plans and security classifications in adult federal prisons discriminated against Black and Indigenous inmates.

“Looking at young people, there’s an opportunity here, early on, to stop a lifetime of involvement with the justice system,” said Safiyah Husein, senior policy analyst with the John Howard Society of Ontario. “So if we are able to connect these children with the resources and supports they need early, then we can prevent them from cycling in and out of the justice system for the remainder of their lives.”

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The Youth Criminal Justice Act, which applies to people between 12 and 17 years of age, has largely succeeded in doing just that. In 2000, Canada’s rate of youth incarceration was among the highest in the Western world, at 17.64 per 10,000. Today, it’s 3.79.

But those gains have come with huge racial disparities. The proportion of whites among youth in secure detention, the most restrictive form of youth custody, declined to 28 per cent from 39 per cent between 2006 and 2016. Over the same period, the rate remained flat for Indigenous prisoners, at about 10 per cent, and increased to 21 per cent from 19 per cent for Black inmates.

“The rate of youth detention has decreased overall since the implementation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, but the question is, are those positive impacts being felt by all? They’re not,” said Fareeda Adam, staff lawyer at the Black Legal Action Centre. “And specifically Black and Indigenous youth are not seeing these benefits.”

John Howard researchers found some heartening news in the court data. For instance, they determined that around 59 per cent of youth cases in 2017 recorded a bail decision at the initial court appearance. However, the number of young people who have to appear before a court five or more times before receiving bail is on the rise, to 9 per cent of cases in 2017 from 5 per cent of cases in 2009.

And those appearances are becoming more spaced out. While five appearances equated to roughly 2½ weeks in custody as of 2006, it stretched out to three weeks by 2017.

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While such a stint might seem short from the outside, just a few days in detention can shift a young person’s mindset permanently.

“Whether it’s group care or jail, the system teaches you to run away from people who do anything negative toward you, or physically fight them,” said Liam Smith, a 22-year-old Belleville-based youth peer mentor.

Mr. Smith helps teens navigate the criminal-justice system. He says many of them are encumbered with impossible bail conditions.

“They get these silly conditions like ‘keep a curfew’ and ‘keep peace and good behaviour,’ ” Mr. Smith said. “What happens if the court tells a kid he has to be somewhere at 9 o’clock but due to circumstances he can’t control, he doesn’t have a bed and has to sleep on the streets? That’s a bail breach. He can get arrested for that.”

Those bail breaches come with administration-of-justice charges that can further entrench a young person in the justice system, the report states.

The report calls for an end to such “boilerplate” bail conditions, an increase in funding for programs that divert youth from jail, a renewed focused on expediting release for detained youth and the adoption of a strategy to address the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous youth in the justice system.

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“Once we have a robust system of community-based alternatives to jail, we can fully realize the goals of the Youth Criminal Justice Act,” said Ms. Husein, the John Howard analyst.

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