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Implementing and working with the Youth Criminal Justice Act across Canada

Marc Alain, Raymond R. Corrado, and Susan Reid (Eds)
Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2016

Given that it has been over a decade since the implementation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), this book chronicles the practices, policies, programs, successes, failures, and future challenges of implementing and working with the YCJA in the provinces and Nunavut. Twelve substantive chapters provide the reader with contextually sensitive and on the ground descriptions of operations, programs, and policy themes. This approach captures the heterogeneity and complexity of youth justice policy, practices, and issues in Canada while adding nuance to the generally favourable view of the YCJA in the context of diversionary and custody trends.

The book begins with a cursory overview of debates that circulated at the time of implementing the YCJA. This is followed by a summary of the custody, diversionary, treatment, and mental health themes that dominate Canadian youth justice policy. This foregrounds the complexity of Canadian youth justice policy, not only in dealing with substantive issues (e.g., custody trends) but also in negotiating and navigating federal/provincial politics and economics. The book then offers an accessible historical account of youth criminal justice law in Canada from pre-1908 to 2003 and beyond. The central question that guides this edited book is: how did the provinces implement the Youth Criminal Justice Act?

Like many jurisdictions before the YCJA came into force, Alberta trained stakeholders and practitioners on the law which allowed and encouraged people to embrace the approach. Despite training efforts in Alberta, Hincks and Winterdyk show how the YCJA changed the workload for practitioners in the youth criminal legal system, leaving some government and non-government organizations struggling to offer good services. In British Columbia, while Corrado and colleagues show how the YCJA impacted all elements of youth justice, the favourable trends among many of the core indicators started before the implementation of the new youth law. While the impact of the YCJA may be overstated, the alignment of provincial practices with the YCJA contributed to an increase in police diversion, a decrease in court cases, and a decrease in incarcerated youth.

In Manitoba, Smandych and colleagues describe some negative outcomes of the YCJA because of unique political, socioeconomic, and demographic characteristics of the province. New Brunswick is another site for struggles with the implementation of the YCJA as it has generally lacked implementation resources and struggled to offer mental health services, which is most clearly evidenced with the well-known Ashley Smith case. These struggles are not always immediate; Bell describes how in Nova Scotia, the implementation of the YCJA and responses to the Nunn Commission of Inquiry meant immediate policy responses for services but these were later cancelled due to budget constraints. The implementation of the YCJA in Newfoundland and Labrador had a demonstrable impact with a decline in police charging, youth going to court, and youth in custody, but these outcomes have qualitatively changed the role of the police, while not quantitatively reducing their workload. In many jurisdictions, even if there is “success” in implementing the YCJA, more comprehensive research is always needed.

In Nunavut, implementing the YCJA is clouded with high rates of criminalization and victimization. While there may be some efforts to include culturally appropriate programming for youth, Campbell and Stuempel suggest that Nunavut may need more specialist programming and more concerted efforts to address crime and victimization that are culturally appropriate. In Ontario, Campbell shows how some areas of the province offer exemplary youth justice programing but the province has a considerable amount of regional differences based on culture, politics, and geography. In Prince Edward Island, Lavandier describes the optimism associated with youth that informs a holistic approach guided by two objectives: early investment in young people to prevent a graduation to the adult legal system; and developing and maintaining programs to prevent crime. This takes shape as front-end investments, graduated interventions, highly motivated professionals, and community workers /investments in growing family and community relationships.

Finally, implementing the YCJA in Quebec was met with a political culture of extensive services for youth and a strong philosophy of care. Alain and Hamel describe how Quebec has a hub model of youth justice where decisions made by courts and judges are administered in province wide youth centres. In Saskatchewan, just like many jurisdictions, the implementation of the YCJA impacted police, courts and corrections. Savarese shows how judges have rejected assembly line processing in favour of thorough assessments into the circumstances of an offence.

Implementing and working with the Youth Criminal Justice Act across Canada clearly shows how jurisdictions were able to retain and establish a great amount of diversity in youth justice policy. The strength of this contribution lies in its ability to: map the commonalities and differences; provide historical and cultural insights into the practices in the jurisdictions; describe views among practitioners; and summarize some jurisdiction-specific programming and problems. These achievements make it an important read for students of youth justice, practitioners, and policy developers. However, graduate students and researchers may be left asking questions about the lack of a theoretical framework to analyze the differences and similarities among the jurisdictions, practitioners may be curious about the implementation of the YCJA in Yukon and the Northwest Territories, while policymakers may be left asking about how to concretely answer the call to produce more data to test outcomes of the YCJA.

In my view, there is a larger lesson in this work that applies to all issues of criminalization and punishment. It is clear that the perceived problem of (youth) crime can be addressed not only as a justice/attorney general/correctional issue but ideally as an unsiloed social issue that needs commitment and sustained engagement from ministries (housing, social services, health, and youth protection) and community organizations. If this text is read, carefully considered, and used to fuel discussions and policy reform about criminal legal system issues, it could have a constructive impact on future policy development. Some of the essential ingredients in producing a positive impact can be seen when: encouraging accountably; changing the overarching logic; training practitioners, funding programs, changing priorities in  front and back end criminal justice processes, and supporting community programming/solutions.

Carleton University

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