Youth Justice Programs Lose Funding

When the government says that it is continuing to fund youth justice programs, you might think that’s a good thing.

Except in this case, with this government, ‘continuing to fund’ actually means slashing funding by 20% – a little detail that was omitted from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s June 27th news release. Titled ‘Government of Canada announces continued support to youth justice services’, it sounds like a good news story.

It’s not.

The federal government is cutting $35.6 million used to supervise and rehabilitate young offenders. The annual fund of $177.3  has suddenly dropped to $141.7. This move has stunned provincial ministers, social workers and especially those working with youth in conflict with the law.

And while the government is touting the savings made from this cut, reducing rehabilitation efforts doesn’t actually make much financial sense. As Beth Alkenbrack, a youth counsellor in Thunder Bay working to keep at-risk youth out of jails, told the Toronto Star, “It costs less than $10,000 a year to service a youth with me, and if they’re in a youth justice custody facility, it’s going to cost a minimum of $150,000 a year.”

When taken in conjunction with the recently enacted Omnibus Crime Bill, things are looking very grim for youth justice in Canada. Bill C-10 has meant more young people are being sentenced to jail for less severe crimes and for longer times.

Article 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child obligates states to use alternatives to jails as much as possible, with detention as a last resort, and to give priority to rehabilitation, reintegration, and correction. Already Bill C-10 violates the Convention. This recent announcement adds to the shameful disregard of the rights of youth, of effective responses to crime, and of basic common sense.

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Private Member’s Bills

The many changes to the Canadian Criminal Code legislated by C-10 have not satisfied this government’s hunger for more bills to get ‘tough on crime’,  restrict the rights of offenders, and curtail judicial discretion.

Since the beginning of this current Parliamentary session, 221 private member’s bills  have been introduced in the House.  While these bills cover a wide spectrum of public policy (such as setting standards for cancer screening and increasing public awareness of epilepsy), many of them are focused on crime.

For example, Bill C-394 will create a new criminal offence for recruiting young people into gangs. Another will levy $5,000 fines or jail terms of up to 10 years for wearing a mask or face paint at a riot.  Another will give federal prison officials more authority to dismiss inmate grievances by deeming them “vexatious” or “frivolous”.

Another private member’s bill, loudly applauded by the Conservative benches, will repeal Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act and prevent rights claims based on hate speech from being brought before human rights commissions.

Former executive director of the John Howard Society, Graham Stewart, explains that rules prevent MPs from tabling bills which deal with economic policies. “So crime bills are one of the few areas that private members can propose legislation that will attract national attention. Now that mandatory minimum penalties are accepted by the government and the opposition as an acceptable solution to just about everything, they have become a simple way to respond to sensational incidents where an MP wants to be seen to be doing something in response to an incident in his/her riding.”

For example, Bill C-299, presented by Conservative MP David Wilks, would require mandatory five-year jail terms for kidnappers of minors. David Wilks is a former RCMP officer and mayor of the B.C. town where Kienan Hebert went missing last fall. The issue of kidnapping of minors has also been flooding the news with the recent trial of Michael Rafferty, who was found guilty of first-degree murder, abduction and sexual assault of 8-year-old Tori Stafford.

In response to Bill C-299, retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice John Major urged the Commons justice committee to refrain from further tying judges’ hands. He also warned the the Criminal Code is becoming too complicated as legislation is “patched” together with ad hoc amendments.

Nonetheless, private member’s bills such as C-299 are easy to draft and are almost a sure to gain public support, especially when Rafferty’s case is still so fresh in our minds.

Stewart fears that this type of reactionary legislation is precisely what led to rampant increases in sentences through mandatory minimum sentences in the US. “Someone would champion a new get tough penalty in the face of a sensational event and label anyone who objects as soft on crime,” he says. “Each would leapfrog the former to prove that they were tougher – apparently thought to be a good thing.”

“There are no brakes on this system of vengeance,” Stewart warns. “Private member’s bills are a very serious problem as punishment is turned into the currency of cheap political tricks.”

Double-bunking part of prison expansion plan

prison bunksExpansion plans for a federal prison in Kingston, Ontario show provisions are being made for double-bunking  – a practice condemned by many as being dangerous and inhumane.

On CBC’s Power and Politics, host Evan Solomon questioned MPs about the development plans for the Collins Bay institution, which show that standard cells will be built with provision for a “future upper bed.”

Candice Hoeppner, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, said the government does not have plans to make double-bunking permanent, but that preparation for them is “just good planning”.

NDP Justice Critic Jack Harris countered that, “prudent planning would be to avoid the kinds of prisons policies that they’ve got now, which is going to lead to more violence, people with less rehabilitation after being in prison and coming out being more dangerous offenders than when they went in.”

Double-bunking, putting two inmates in one cell, is already practiced in Canadian prisons. Corrections Canada reports that 13% of inmates are currently double-bunked – and this figure could rise as high as 30% as the tougher sentencing provisions of the omnibus crime bill come into effect.

In 2010, Jeremy Phillips, 33, an inmate at the Mountain Institution in the Fraser Valley, was killed by his cellmate Michael Wayne McGray, a man serving six concurrent life sentences for murders.

Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, has  condemned double-bunking for increasing violence between inmates, threatening the safety of guards and increasing the spread of infectious diseases.

In his Annual Report 2009-10, Sapers gave an example of case in which double-bunking resulted in violence: “A maximum security inmate is released from administrative segregation to a double-occupancy cell, despite a psychological assessment on file that noted it would be preferable if he was accommodated in a single cell because of previous psychiatric history. The inmate assaults his cellmate and is transferred to the Special Handling Unit.”

Sapers also reported that bed capacity in the five treatment centres only met 50% of identified need. “Exemptions are even being requested to “double up” in segregation cells where two inmates must share space designed for one for up to 23 hours a day.”

“Given high rates of mental illness, drug addiction, violence and criminal gang membership,” Sapers reports, “it is difficult to see how double-bunking can be viewed as a correctionally appropriate or sustainable solution to crowding pressures in either the short or medium terms.”

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) used to require approval by the Commissioner prior to increasing the number of double occupancy cells. However, in Augst 2010, CSC released a policy bulletin announcing the suspension of this policy. This decision was made despite acknowledgement that “single accommodation is the most desirable and appropriate method of housing offenders [and that] double bunking (one cell designed for one inmate occupied by two) is inappropriate as a permanent accommodation measure within the context of good corrections.”

Responding to double-bunking

Vic Toews

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

When questioned about the practice of double-bunking by CBC’s Evan Solomon in August, 2010, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said that double-bunking is “not something that is inappropriate or illegal or unconstitutional or violates international standards”.  Toews went on to say that “many countries use double-bunking and quite frankly I think in many cases it’s appropriate”.

However, Justin Piché points out the practice of double-bunking contravenes the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Section 9. (1) of this international standard states that “Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself. If for special reasons, such as temporary overcrowding, it becomes necessary for the central administration to make an exception to this rule, it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room”.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers has also stated: “Double Bunking is an unsafe, ineffective means by which to address population management, and will inevitably prove problematic for correctional officers, correctional staff, offenders, CSC and, finally, the general public.”

Additionally, the Canadian Criminal Justice Association argues that the practice of double-bunking  threatens the safety of inmates and staff and, ultimately, the public.


Impact of Bill C-10 on Aboriginal Peoples

The Senate Committee debating Bill C-10, the omnibus crime bill, heard today how this legislation will negatively impact Aboriginal Peoples.

Shawn Atleo

Shawn Atleo, AFN National Cheif (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press).

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo  spoke via video conference from his community on the west coast of the Vancouver Island. He made it clear that the AFN is very concerned about the direction Bill C-10 is headed in and that this legislation will not make Aboriginal communities safer. Unfortunately his testimony was cut short due to technical problems, so AFN senior strategist, Roger Jones provided further details and fielded the Senators’ questions.

Jones told the Committee that the AFN searched high and low for elements within Bill C-10 that would improve the situation for Aboriginal Peoples – and couldn’t find anything.

He said the Omnibus Bill will compound the existing over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, such as through mandatory minimum sentences (mms) for drug offences and the removal of judicial discretionwith regard to such things as the Gladue principles.

References to the Gladue decision were frequent throughout AFN panel discussion. Gladue principles, based on a 1999 Supreme Court interpretation of Section 718.2 of the Criminal Code, provide that reasonable alternatives to imprisonment should be sought and particular attention should be given to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.

Senator Mobina Jaffer suggested that the Senate could recommend an exemption clause in Bill C-10 so as to preserve Gladue principles.

Senator Fraser questioned how often these principles are applied. (Not often enough, Jones replied.) Senator Lang challenged Jones as to why MMS for such reprehensible crimes as child sexual exploitation should have exceptions for Aboriginal offenders. Jones replied that nature of the crime should never negate the need to look at the offender’s circumstances.

In contrast to the AFN’s detailed concerns with the Omnibus Bill, University of British Colombia Law Professor, Benjamin Perrin, presented the Senate Committee with his strong support of “all” aspects of the bill, suggesting it balances criminal law by enhancing the accountability of offenders and increasing the rights of victims.

He argued that more people charged with cultivating marijuana should be imprisoned and that 89% of marijuana production comes from organized crime groups and the majority of what is produced is destined for the United States, fueling serious border problems. This argument relies on the assumptions of supply suppression and drug probation which have actually made drugs more available and cheaper, and have undermined the public health system.

Indeed, all criminal justice legislation relies on certain assumptions – such as incarceration as a tool of deterrence and segregation as punishment – but as the AFN repeatedly pointed out today, these assumptions and their outcomes have resulted in a sustained failure to address the systemic roots of crime or how the justice system continues to fail First Nations Peoples.

Final Parliamentary vote for Crime Bill

Leadnow.ca encouraged Canadians to not let our government rubber stamp Bill C-10.

On Monday, the Omnibus Crime Bill will go through third reading in the House of Commons. Once a Bill has been read three times, it’s sent to Senate for consideration. After being passed by the Senate, it will be presented to the Governor General for Royal Assent and becomes law.

Experts and advocates for both victims and offenders have all lined up in recent months to express their concerns to this costly bill that will see more people sent to prison for longer periods. Some provincial governments, Quebec in particular, have stated their opposition to this legislation that will see their correction costs balloon.

In light of widespread opposition, and piles of evidence showing its wrong-headedness, Conservatives have shut down debate on the Crime Bill – repeatedly using their majority to put limits on the length and depth of debate.

Given that they have majority in the House of Commons, it is unlikely that this Bill won’t sail through third reading and move on to the Senate. While those advocating for more humane, effective responses to crime will soon turn their efforts to addressing Senators (those unelected officials who, as far as I can tell, have absolutely no accountability to the public), it is not too late for one last public outcry of opposition to our Members of Parliament.

Today I called my local MP’s office to ask if he would be voting in opposition to the Bill. I already knew he would, but perhaps he would still find my phone call encouraging. I then called Rob Nicholson’s office – the Minister of Justice who tabled this Bill – to say, ‘for what it’s worth, I am against this Bill.’ The secretary politely thanked me and that was the end of our conversation. I also wrote to many of my contacts, encouraging them to make calls as well.

Despite my discouragement over the likely outcome of this bill, I have been encouraged by the groups who have publicly expressed their opposition. These include: Canadian Bar AssociationJohn Howard SocietyElizabeth Fry society,Assembly of First NationsNative Women’s AssociationLeadnowHarm Reduction NetworkCanadian Civil Liberties AssociationChurch Council on Justice and Corrections and United Church of Canada.

Omnibus Crime Bill Tabled in House of Commons

Rob Nicholson

Federal Justice MInister Rob Nicholson tabled the Omnibus Crime Bill on Sept 20, 2011 (Adrian Wyld/CP).

As expected, today the Conservative Justice Minster Rob Nicholson tabled the omnibus crime bill – a massive ‘tough on crime’ legislation package titled ‘Safe Streets and Communities Act’.

Unfortunately this 110-page bill will do little to create real safety for Canadians. Instead it will lead to massive spending, tax increases, over-crowded prisons, decreased judicial discretion and fewer rehabilitative services – none of which will make our communities safer.

The Conservatives were brought down after being found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to disclose the costs of their tough on crime bills. They somehow managed to come back to government with a majority – and are still continuing to refuse to disclose the costs.

Nicholson says that they are ready to pay the price to keep the streets safe. Well, it’s the taxpayers who are going to be paying for it – not just through increased taxes but through seeing money taken out of services like health care and education and sucked into massive prison complexes.

At a press conference in the Centre Block today, four groups – the John Howard Society, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), theCanadian Civil Liberties Association and the Native Women’s Association, strongly spoke out against the bill.

Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of the John Howard Society, pointed to concerns about already over-crowded prisons potentially violating human rights as they become more packed. Kim Pate, CAEFS, proposed that an amendment be added to the bill stating that it cannot be enacted until all the provinces and territories have signed off on the costs that they will have to face in housing the increased number of prisoners this bill will create.

Opposition MPs are also demanding that costs be tabled and that the bill not be rammed through without due consideration and deliberation.

“We’re being encouraged to believe we need this for public safety,” said Kim Pate. “It’s a farce. If in fact it was true, then the U.S. would be the safest place in the world, the States would not be going bankrupt and they would not be retreating from this agenda.”

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