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Tom Rees | Criminal Defence Lawyer Winnipeg

Alternatives to Jail for Young People


A local lawyer Joshua Mason shared a recent article from the Huffington Post titled, Locking Up Juvenile Offenders Doesn’t Work, Pew Study Suggests. It talks about the effectiveness of custodial sentences for young people:

Reduced sentences and community-based treatments are more effective for most juvenile offenders than locking them in correctional facilities, according to new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The article reviews studies in Texas, Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Hawaii that all point to custodial sentences leading to increased recidivism rates for youth. Kentucky and Hawaii have both introduced laws to limit the use of jail for misdemeanour convictions for young people on the basis that prison sentences were not affecting youth crime rates.

A Crown Attorney recently asked me what options the Court has when all non-custodial options are ignored and ultimately exhausted? If a young person has been put on an court order and fails to follow the conditions over and over, the contention is that jail is the only remaining option. However, evidence based on empirical study and expert opinion is telling us that jail sentences are not reducing recidivism rates. So the question becomes, what really is the purpose of the youth criminal justice system? If the purpose of the justice system is reducing youth crime rates and protecting the public in the long term, then the current use of custodial sentences is not the right answer according to the multiple studies above.

I share prosecutor’s frustration in that the youth criminal justice system is not well equipped to handle many of the issues of the young people involved. What options do the court or prosecution have to assist a young women who is sexually exploited and continuously running away from her placements? They can put her on a probation order or house arrest with conditions to remain at home, check in with a youth worker, abstain from alcohol or drugs and the like, or they can be sentenced to prison. Those actions don’t address the mental health, addictions and family issues of the young person, and instead provide for serious criminal consequences for failure. Many of these children have already failed out of other structured programs like school or youth programs, but now those failings will also be criminal.

My view is that criminalizing young women who have already been exploited and who often don’t have sufficient resources in the community to address their addictions and mental health issues is not the answer. I agree that youth courts do not have many options for youth who repeatedly breach their court orders than more court orders or custody. Once a court has placed a young person on conditions, and that young person has failed to follow the conditions, the endless cycle begins. The court will increase the sentence as the young person fails, concluding the sentence was not “meaningful” enough because it was breached. This cycle results in young people serving jailing time for missing school and returning home late for curfew. It results in a prosecutor asking for 50 days of custody and 3 months of house arrest for a young person who ran away for the weekend and didn’t call their probation officer.

Evidence has shown that custodial sentences for many young people do not reduce recidivism or youth crime rates. Our system is stuck in a never ending loop of probation conditions followed by breaches resulting in longer and longer prison sentences for young people. Texas and other states are finally realizing that the way they have been administering their youth justice systems has ultimately been inconsistent with their objectives and goals. Young people are going to jail because the individual rules say they should, but the effect of the implementation of those rules has been contrary to the purpose of the system in the first place. I agree that there don’t appear to be many options for crowns who prosecute young people for repeated breaches of court orders. However, a start would be to stop asking for jail sentences for these types of breaches.

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