Coming to grips with youth crime
By David Lockett
The tide is changing in how we deal with youth crime in Toronto. Recent news reports calling for the closing of the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre in Etobicoke strongly suggest that the “tough on crime” movement and its accompanying measures, such as boot camps and squalid detention centres, is on the wane.
Restorative justice measures are on the way in.
Consider two issues dovetailing in Ontario, and specifically Toronto, in the past several weeks: increasing court backlogs and an escalation in violent youth crime.
The recent provincial auditor’s warning that thousands of criminal cases could be tossed out because of court backlogs, raises serious concerns about what can be done to deal with the problem.
In fact, the scarcity of resources carries beyond the court, and includes the police as well. Police say they spend too much time in court, often several days at a time.
We need a system that frees them up to protect the public and keeps them on the street.
The issue of youth crime is causing widespread anxiety. Toronto has witnessed some vicious and deplorable acts of youth violence of late.
Many of these cases are highly publicized and sensational. However, it would be wrong to tar all young offenders with the same brush.
The Canadian justice system has focused on treating all young offenders with the same level of severity and has relied too much on custody as a solution to the problem.
While there are certainly serious offences that require an equally serious level of public safety and security through custody and punishment, a majority of youth offences is of a less serious nature.
Moreover, what are we doing to rehabilitate offenders earlier in the cycle, to change behaviour and prevent future crime?
The system is costly as well.
Some of the direct costs paid by the taxpayer include a $2,000 average court cost to process one young offender, an annual closed custody (jail) cost of $100,000 to $120,000 for each young offender, and massive indirect costs of policing, legal aid, counselling and probation.
Next, consider that Canada has one of the harshest young offender systems in the Western world. It incarcerates its youth at 10 times the rate it does its adult population and twice the rate of American youth.
Yet, 43 per cent of Canadian youth who are convicted will be charged again within a year.
This is not a system that appears to be working.
Australia, New Zealand and many European countries have shown if you keep youth out of jail, you can prevent them from becoming career criminals.
With this year’s introduction of the much-maligned Youth Criminal Justice Act, Canada has taken strides to deal with its over-reliance on custody by emphasizing community justice.
The previous YOA was inefficient, costly and cumbersome and did little to rehabilitate offenders.
One concept that has shown positive results in reducing recidivism rates and costs to the system is the notion of aboriginal, or restorative, justice.
The process often involves dealing with the offender, the victim, the families, police and the community, in an effort to shame and rehabilitate the offender while providing closure to the victim — something that doesn’t happen in court.
These programs are showing evidence of a solid reduction in recidivism rates and at the same time empowering communities to help police themselves.
It is not a panacea for dealing with all youth crime, but it is a more effective way of dealing with a large majority of offenders.
According to Nicholas Bala, an expert on youth justice and a law professor at Queen’s University, Ontario has done less than any other province to implement the community-justice provisions of the Act.
“The province’s approach has been very restrictive and expensive,” said Bala. “Hopefully, the new government will take a broader, 360 degree view of youth offending which looks at offender-victim relations.”
Sentencing circles have only been utilized in Canada in small communities until recently.
Three years ago, we started modelling the Sparwood Youth Assistance Program in British Columbia and applied it to Toronto’s urban setting.
The program operates in partnership with the Metro East (Scarborough) Youth Court under the name of the
It deals with approximately 240 cases a year in Scarborough and has just expanded to the amalgamated youth court at Metro West (North York and Etobicoke.)
The restorative justice approach is to try to deal with many less serious offenders, getting to them early and eroding the foundation for criminal behaviour. This also frees up court and police resources so they can deal with the most serious offenders more effectively.
For many of the 100,000 Canadian kids charged every year, shame and restitution are much more effective and meaningful alternatives to custody.