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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.

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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.

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"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.

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"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.

Mr. Akinsanya cranes his head around to show the thin white scar worming its way around the back of his neck where someone stabbed him near Keele Street and Wilson Avenue in northwest Toronto. Mr. Akinsanya grabbed the knife – a "dagger," he calls it, spreading thumb and pinky finger across the diameter of the paper dinner plate balanced on his knee – and "I disarmed him, and then I stabbed him, and then he died."

Mr. Akinsanya showed up for a Grade 12 math test the next day – "I didn't want to fail" – and then took off. Four days later, he turned himself in.

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He bounced from Maplehurst to the Don Jail, Millhaven Institution and Fenbrook Penitentiary. But repeatedly, he says how lucky he was: When he got out, he stayed out.

"I said, 'Enough is enough,' and streamlined my way into something positive," he said. "I didn't really have it bad. But a lot of people do."

Crime and punishment for minors

Youth justice is a prickly issue: the way a community polices, prosecutes, sentences and rehabilitates young people prods at sensitive societal sensibilities. And concerns about the effects of crime and incarceration on malleable minds have tied criminologists and policy-makers in knots for decades.

International studies have indicated young people who are put behind bars are 11 per cent less likely to get a job once they get out, compared with those who don't go to prison, even once researchers account for pre-conviction differences in background and upbringing.

At the same time, young people who are incarcerated are no less likely to reoffend than those who serve alternative sentences in the community – if anything, recidivism is more likely.

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"Adolescents are more amenable to rehabilitation than adult offenders," Prof. Bala argues. "[But] if a young person commits one offence and then reoffends, that's going to be a life of crime."

The Youth Criminal Justice Act created a new category for violent, high-risk young offenders, providing longer, adult sentences for some; at the same time, it gave police and others more discretion and flexibility in handling cases of young offenders. Jail time was intended as a last, and largely undesirable, resort.

Some point to the subsequent decline in Canada's youth incarceration rates and argue the law has succeeded. Critics say the act as it stands now lets minors get away with too much, while failing to provide justice for victims.

That's where the federal government's Bill C-4 comes in.

"We need to strengthen the way our young offenders system deals with violent and repeat young offenders," said Justice Ministry spokeswoman Pamela Stephens. "We remain unwavering in our commitment to fighting crime and protecting Canadians so that our communities are safe places for people to live, raise their families and do business."

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson would not comment.

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While this has been cheered by victims' rights organizations, others say it will do little for public safety. Instead, child advocates would like to see funding for programs to reintegrate youth back into the community.

There's no question some youth need to be behind bars, child advocate Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. "But the question really is, 'Is that the majority of the cases we have in custody?'"

Youth Criminal Justice Act

  • Introduced in 1998, passed by the House of Commons in 2002.
  • Encourages extrajudicial measures as “often the most appropriate and effective way to address youth crime,” especially in cases of non-violent or first-time offenders
  • Included a clause stressing the circumstances of aboriginal youth be considered at sentencing
  • Allowed provinces, if they chose, to lower the age at which a youth can receive an adult sentence to 14 from 16
  • Changed sentencing procedures to facilitate community supervision at the end of a custody sentence
  • Custody sentences are a last resort, and only given out if: The youth has committed a violent offence; has failed to comply with at least two non-custodial sentences; has committed an indictable offence and has “several findings of guilt;” or under “aggravating circumstances.”

Bill C-4 – Sébastien’s Law

  • Named after 19-year-old murder victim Sébastien Lacasse; introduced by the federal Conservatives last fall; part of this government’s omnibus crime bill pledged to be put through within its first 100 days.
  • Would make the following changes to the YCJA:
  • Expand definition of “violent offence” to include reckless behaviour endangering public safety
  • Expand the crimes eligible for pre-trial detention to include people accused of serious property crimes
  • Require police to keep a record of any extrajudicial measures (alternative measures outside the court process) imposed on young people, so their “criminal tendencies can be documented”
  • Authorize courts to punish youth who’ve already had multiple extrajudicial measures to impose jail sentences
  • Require Crown to consider seeking an adult sentence for young offenders 14 to 17 years old convicted of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter or aggravated sexual assault
  • Establish deterrence and denunciation as sentencing principles

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