Political Expediency and the Youth Criminal Justice Act

Lindsay Handren

Major errors discovered in two separate government crime bills in the past month – the first when the House of Commons sent an unamended version of Bill C-479 to the Senate, and the second when the Senate knowingly approved a bill with a glaring error – have led to renewed scrutiny of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s notoriously ambitious crime agenda. Yet the answer to the question of how a government so keen on fighting crime could be so ignorant of the operation of the law itself is clear: it is political expediency, not evidence, that is guiding policy-making.

This recognition is particularly applicable to the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), the law that currently governs Canada’s youth justice system. The YCJA replaced the Young Offenders Act in 2003 in light of concerns about how the system had evolved; namely, about the overuse of the courts in less serious matters, disparity in sentencing, and the need to better take into account the interests of victims. It aimed to provide the legislative framework for a fairer and more effective system.

Ottawa’s attempt to “toughen-up” the then-15-year-old young offenders law has had notable success. The number of youth accused of a Criminal Code offense has decreased significantly over the past decade, falling from over 4,000 in 2003 to about 2,800 in 2013. In the same period, the severity of crimes involving youth declined by 37 per cent, and the number of violent crimes committed by youth fell in every single province.

Yet recent amendments to the Youth Criminal Justice Act would seem to contradict these statistics. Bill C-10, the ‘Safe Streets and Communities Act’ passed in October 2012 brought significant change to the YCJA, including: adjusting its policy framework to highlighting the protection of the public; removing a presumption against pre-trial detention for serious offences; requiring the Crown to consider seeking an adult sentence for youth aged 14 and older charged with a serious offence; and granting judges permission to lift publication bans for violent offences.

These policy amendments were put forth by the federal government as a means of strengthening the ways in which Canada’s youth justice system deals with repeat and violent offenders. But in forcing stiffer penalties for youth and making it easier to try them as adults while blatantly ignoring recent declines in youth crime rates, Bill C-10 has had a decidedly repressive effect. Many, including the United Nations, have criticized the legislation as “excessively punitive.”

The evidence would seem to show that the 2003 legislation had been successful. So why did government feel a need to implement further reforms?

The ‘Safe Streets and Communities Act’ was guided not by evidence, but by political expediency – leading to over-simplification and appeals to emotions, instead of statistics. Conscious of public concerns regarding the number and severity of youth crimes, and of perceived inadequacies in the existing policy to deal with the issue, the federal government responded by building on that policy to achieve the improvements that appeared necessary.

These amendments were not justified by an increase in youth crime, nor was there any other legitimate basis for public concern about the failure of the YCJA to control crime rates. But public perception is often not consistent with fact, a notion that is particularly true in dealing with criminal justice policies: Canadians tend to overestimate the frequency and seriousness of violent crimes and the probability of being victimized.

The real problem, then, was neither growing youth crime rates nor a lack of evidence, but was one of perception – and legislating in response to erroneous public perceptions has in a way given the public Parliament’s approval.

Critics of the Harper government’s crime agenda may be surprised to learn that it was Jean Chretien’s Liberal government that first pushed political opportunism with respect to the YCJA. The 1993 federal election, wherein the Reform Party’s “tough on crime” agenda saw both the Liberal and Conservative Party follow suit, marked a turning point in youth justice policy in Canada. A call for the review of the Young Offenders Act in 1995 was brought forth by then-Minister of Justice Allan Rock “following commitments made during the election campaign.” Leading up to the adoption of the YCJA in 2003, the Liberal government continued to respond to public concerns over what were perceived to be lenient policies – despite the fact that youth crime rates had begun a constant decrease as early as 1992.

There has been, and continues to be, a crisis in a lack of federal leadership that should inform the Canadian population of the realities of youth crime. Politicians of all political stripes have been far too quick to capitalize on short-term gains while ignoring the evidence that points to falling youth crime rates, wasted public funds on prison sentences, and incarceration lending to re-offending and community breakdown.

A variety of solutions have been proposed to address Canada’s mis-guided youth criminal justice policies. Many have suggested that the rest of country follow Quebec’s lead, where prosecutors were directed to continue to focus on a long-standing tradition of rehabilitation and reintegration following the 2012 amendments to the YCJA. Other suggestions have included increasing the use of restorative justice, training teachers in collaborative conflict resolution, and adopting an integrative approach to crime prevention and reduction in addressing poverty and inequality.

Whatever the preferred policy solution may be, one thing is clear: going forward, the federal government needs to analyze and judge critically both problems and solutions in the area of youth criminal justice policy. Otherwise, it will further discredit its own legitimacy in view of the evidence and in the eyes of policy-makers, and sell out another generation to political expediency.

Lindsay Handren is a 2015 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto and a Co-Editor of the Public Policy & Governance Review. She holds a BA (Honours) in Political Science and History from the University of Prince Edward Island, and recently completed a summer internship with the Mowat Centre. Her policy interests are broad, but are focused primarily in the social and economic policy spheres.

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