Last year I stumbled on a CPAC broadcast of hearings being held in the Canadian Senate. A former head of "corrections" (read: prisons) for the state of Texas was testifying about how supposed tough-on-crime sentencing doesn't work. He was not in Canada on any official capacity, but as an individual, formerly sold on the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key method, now speaking about how seemingly expensive social programs aimed at crime prevention are actually a bargain in the long run.
The Harper Government's so-called anti-crime legislation has hot-button mass appeal. Underneath the rhetoric, however, it's just a boondoggle for the prison industry, creating more criminals to fill more prisons. How many young Canadian lives will be wasted for profit and ideology?
As the US, UK and Australia step back from policies aimed at incarcerating youth, and expand programs aimed at creating a new path for young offenders, Canada does exactly the opposite. From the Globe and Mail:
If Canada follows through on plans to crack down on miscreant youth, it'll be one of the few jurisdictions in the world heading in that direction.
And the tough-on-crime approach in the face of contrary evidence is bemusing international observers.
Judges, criminologists and policy-makers in the United States, Britain and Australia - countries whose systems, for the most part, closely resemble Canada's - can't figure out why this country is planning to shift toward a jail-intensive approach. Everyone else seems to be doing the opposite, not for ideological reasons, but because evidence shows it works.
"It's somewhat ironic, actually," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, which studies jail policy across the United States.
"After nearly four decades of the so-called 'get tough' movement in the U.S., which has meant sending more people to prisons [and] keeping them there for longer periods of time, there's beginning to be a shift away from that."
Ottawa's intention to adopt principles of deterrence and denunciation when it comes to sentencing teens makes no sense to Judge Jimmie Edwards. He's chief justice of the juvenile division of Missouri, an otherwise conservative state that for half a century has focused on diverting youth from the prison system, and rehabilitating the ones that are incarcerated. Now, the "Missouri Model" is being adopted elsewhere.
"I don't think it deters anything," he said. "You have to look at what type of community are you building by constantly sending kids to jail."
Bob Ashford calls it the three cherries on the slot machine: Fewer teens committing crimes, fewer teens in custody and fewer teens reoffending once they're out.
That's the multi-year trend Britain is looking at when it comes to youth justice. But it's not an obvious correlation, by any means. And the method - pour money into prevention and rehabilitation, in the hopes it will pay off years down the road - was a tough sell for the man in charge of prevention strategy in the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales.
Now, he has £32-million a year (about $49-million; or the amount it costs to keep 405 British youths in jail for a year) to put toward programs designed to catch potential young criminals before they commit crimes, and more on top of that to divert those facing charges out of the prison system, and rehabilitate anyone who does end up in custody.
A couple of years ago, he was invited to Canada to give a talk on his program's success. He spoke in Vancouver and Montreal, and was encouraged to see a country receptive to more innovative alternatives to locking teens up.
"Our approach has been to say, 'There are too many young people in custody.' ... Prison not only doesn't work in terms of preventing reoffending, it's also extremely expensive. And that's not to anyone's benefit."
As of Aug. 1, Texas will have a total of six youth-incarceration institutions - down from 15 four years ago.
That's a huge shift for a state that in 2007 was embroiled in horror stories of teens facing harsh, abusive conditions far from home. Damning national headlines and allegations of mistreatment from hundreds of youth sparked a sea change in the way the state tackles juvenile delinquency.
"There's been a real shift to make sure that we really look at the youth, the seriousness of the offence and the youth's risk to reoffend, and only incarcerate those that are the highest risk in terms of public safety," said Texas Youth Commission executive director Cherie Townsend.
"We had some horrible things occur which really got our attention. And we then re-evaluated."
In the past two years alone, Ms. Townsend has seen more therapeutic services, educational and vocational programs on offer for close to two-thirds of the teens who come through her doors and, for youth who do end up in prison, a focus on transitioning back to their home community, "so there's a greater chance for successful re-entry." . . .