Wednesday January 28, 2015

Youth justice cut ill-advised

Fiscal restraint may be the order of the day, but a decision to cut 20 per cent from federal funding for youth criminal justice programs seems tragically shortsighted. Moreover, the lost funding presents a textbook example of how slashing programs can, in effect, increase the cost burden.

In July, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson quietly eliminated more than $35 million from the Youth Justice Services program starting next year. As with other belt-tightening measures across the board, the 20 per cent budget cut was made to help rein in Ottawa's substantial deficit. The Justice Department, Nicholson explained to his provincial counterparts, has to cut $67 million from its budget.

When the Young Offenders Act was enacted in 1985, the Youth Justice Services Fund was created to enable the provinces to deliver related services and programs. These programs include prevention and education aimed at steering kids clear of crime in the first place. They also include the first level of contact young offenders have with rehabilitation, programs that provide as much support as possible and which are specifically focused on keeping youths away from the adult corrections system where, ironically, they can be drawn further into criminal lifestyles.

Only last month, Statistics Canada provided another startling - and heartening - update in the long-term decline in crime in this country. Notably, the crime rate is at its lowest level in 40 years. In B.C., the rate is dropping faster than in any other province.

This undeniable fact somehow gets lost in the context of the Tories' omnibus crime bill, notorious murders and mass shootings south of the border. Criminologists and sociologists can't specifically explain the trend, but they have a pretty good idea of some key factors, one being the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

"Whatever you can do to decrease youth involvement in the criminal justice system will create a longer decreasing trend," said Margaret Wright, a UBC social work professor.

The overwhelming number of young people who come into conflict with the law can be effectively rehabilitated before they reach adulthood.

The government maintains that, despite the cut, it is channeling funds into programs that are applicable to youth, such as a "guns, gangs and drugs" component and a drug-treatment component, yet the provinces are still on the hook to come up with the $35 million in short order.

For the Harper government, given its much-touted anti-crime mandate, this is the height of hypocrisy and a clearcut case of downloading costs that doesn't serve the public interest. They should heed the provinces and look elsewhere for cuts.

We Say editorials represent the viewpoint of The Daily News and are written by publisher Tim Shoults, city editor Tracy Gilchrist, or associate news editors Dan Spark and Mark Rogers.

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