Investment in crime prevention and treatment, rather than in the increase of punishment, offers the best solution in response to the needs of troubled youth.
Over the course of the last half century CCJA’s position has been consistent in promoting the rights of young offenders, the need to invest public funds in the pursuit of treatment and the development of community programs that would lead to crime prevention, rather than further increasing punishment. While youth accountability must be part of the core principles that address the causes and correlates of crime, we believe that punishment and retribution alone may lead to more violent behaviour. Prevention and intervention strategies are needed to reduce the incidence of violence.
In its 1999 brief entitled “Defence of a True System of Youth Justice”, CCJA pointed out that Canada was incarcerating youths at a rate double that of the United States and four times that of adults in Canada. While the rate of incarceration of youth appears to have subsided substantially since 2002, proposed legislation is now appearing that would ‘toughen” the youth justice system for no substantial reason that can be supported by research and statistics. Youth crime has declined dramatically and endangerment of the community from this segment of offenders is the lowest in decades. The Canadian Criminal Justice Association continues to present its consistent, time-honoured messages that have proven to be accurate over many decades.
We have had a particular interest in youth justice issues since at least 1956 when we provided recommendations to a Parliamentary Committee reviewing the Juvenile Delinquency Act. We recommended that a “young person” should be defined as someone under the age of 18, that they should be kept separate from adults if imprisoned, that publicity be entirely banned in any publication and that juvenile records be inaccessible to anyone outside the criminal justice system, including future employers.
In a later brief to a 1963 Justice Committee, CCJA highlighted the importance of ensuring that the juvenile system provides the full traditional court protection to accused youth as well as looking after their social and psychological needs. This brief introduced the importance of prevention, treatment facilities and the proper training for justice officials and staff dealing with youth.
In 1964 CCJA introduced the concept of ‘least restrictive measure” as applied to this group. It was recommended that a young adult should not be held in jail pending court appearances, nor sent to prison as a sanction, unless all other courses of action have been considered.
In 1971 the Association provided a brief in response to a draft of the Young Offenders Act. Picking up the previous theme, it was recommended that the use of juvenile court be limited to the most serious offences but even then, other means be employed if feasible. It was also recommended that the term “mentally disabled” replace the previous term of “legally insane” and further that these individuals be treated under mental health legislation of the provinces. Later briefs recommended that prevention programs be developed as joint ventures between the federal government and the provinces focussing on family, school, employment and drug abuse. In order to reduce the utilization of the criminal justice system, conciliation, mediation and diversion programs were proposed. For convicted youth, services were suggested to respond to their needs. A Declaration of Principles stated that young persons are accountable; they require supervision, discipline, guidance and assistance; judicial proceedings should be avoided where safely possible; they are entitled to due process, fair and equal treatment and right of appeal; and that parents are responsible for their care and supervision. These principles are still supported some thirty years later.
In response to suggested amendments to the Young Offenders Act, CCJA opposed increased penalties while suggesting better funding for programs as well as greater use of Alternative Measures. CCJA also reiterated its support for crime prevention in its response to a Comprehensive Review of the Young Offenders Act.
Longer sentences and deterrence are not believed to be as effective as a more comprehensive approach that facilitates the rehabilitation of young persons. Nonetheless, changes to the YCJA as a result of Bill C-10 highlight protection of society, denunciation and deterrence as sentencing principles. Amendments will also ensure greater use of custody, even require the Crown to consider adult sentences for serious violent crimes and require judges to consider lifting publication ban on the names of youth offenders.
In our view the criminal justice system should be given the discretion to evaluate each case on its own merits, enhance services to victims, and provide the courts with the mandate to use programs that work as part of general sentencing principles. CCJA recommends that the YCJA provide for adequate mental health assessments and emphasize treatment for young offenders rather than imprisonment.