Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone

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Punishment or prevention, what works for youth?

The balance to be struck in youth criminal justice is between punishment/deterrence and prevention/rehabilitation. If law makers consider the makeup of a young person’s brain it becomes more apparent where that line should be drawn. A young mind is very receptive. It is more able to adapt and absorb information than an adult brain. Crafting a sentence ought to be informed by this principle. Incarcerating youth exposes them to other offenders where they can exchange stories, learning the tricks of other criminal trades, and should be the method of last resort for most young offenders. This is the stance taken by Britain, the US and Australia.

Bill C-4 will impose more frequent and more severe incarceration periods on youth. This is an expensive proposition given that youth in Canada are already incarcerated at a rate 5 times higher that of England and Wales. Over the last few weeks there has been a great deal of discussion around the crime rates and the figures and all of them point to greater expense with less return. The goal for most criminal justice systems when it comes to youth offenders is to incarcerate fewer, keep those who are incarcerated there for less time and have fewer youth returning to detention centers.

In nations that have relied on a strictly punishment and deterrence model, all of the mentioned fields get worse in part because of the exposure to other criminals in jail but also because of their inability to secure employment following their incarceration. Unemployment is an important but often ignored piece of this issue. When examining the cost of incarceration we include housing, monitoring and feeding an offender, we also have to consider that person’s inability to contribute by way of employment. This is not unlike the potential for contribution that is lost when people are kept in poverty (for more on that see here).

Nations that have turned to a rehabilitation and prevention model have seen improvements in all of the critical areas. The proposed move to use deterrence and denunciation as guidelines in sentencing may be very harmful to youth. Not only will resources be stretched because of an increased number of mouths to feed, house and supervise but the return on that cost will be significantly reduced. The number of rehabilitative services available to young offenders while in custody will not be sufficient to accommodate the influx of new inmates.

Some articles suggest that the falling crime rate is not indicative of a healthy justice system because of the number of figures that are not included in calculating that rate. While a more inclusive study of the crime trends in Canada may better inform decision making there are outcomes that we can confidently turn to as precedents for the proposed Bill. These precedents, like in the State of Texas where they’ve reduced the number of youth prisons from 15 to six in five years by shifting to a rehabilitation and prevention model, suggest that a move to a deterrence and denunciation model would be ineffective and expensive both in its monetary and social costs.