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Harsher punishment for harsher youth

Yukon's Child and Youth Advocate says Ottawa's proposed changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act are inappropriate.

Yukon’s Child and Youth Advocate says Ottawa’s proposed changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act are inappropriate.

Under the proposed Bill C-4, youth as young as 14 who commit serious crimes could face the same punishments as adults.

But the new legislation ignores mental health, said Andy Nieman, who was in Ottawa this week presenting his concerns alongside other youth advocates.

“There is no focus on mental health treatment or diagnosis in the Yukon for youth,” said Nieman. “Bill C-4 will just paint everyone with the same brush.

“Youth with FASD will be treated the same as people that have no mental illness, and that is not appropriate or fair.”

The Youth Criminal Justice Act, as it stands now, has more focus on rehabilitation and reintegration of young offenders, said Nieman.

“And it also speaks to assisting those who have mental health illness and issues instead of just warehousing them,” he said.

“Basically, Bill C-4 wants to introduce amendments that would simply be focused more on punishment, deterrents and denunciation,” he said. “It will be a mini-system of the adult system and we feel that’s an infringement on the rights of the youth in situations that are going to affect them in a very detrimental way.”

Changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act have been coming for a while.

In December 2006, Justice Merlin Nunn, from Nova Scotia, released a review of the act with 34 recommendations.

He covered many things, including a new definition of “violent offence.”

Nunn’s recommendations were widely accepted in the legal world.

When the act came under review, the Liberals insisted the government accept Nunn’s report almost entirely, said Larry Bagnell, Yukon’s MP.

But Bill C-4 “would go far beyond Justice Nunn’s recommendations,” according to the Canadian Bar Association’s review of the bill in June 2010.

The proposed bill is so extreme, even Nunn rejects it.

The bar association’s report quotes an interview Nunn gave to the Canadian Press.

“There’s no evidence anywhere in North America, that I know of, that keeping people in custody longer, punishing them longer, has any fruitful effects for society. Custody should be the last-ditch thing for a child.”

But Bagnell is confident his party would support the bill if it returns to the House as it is now, even with its lack of address to root causes of crime or rehabilitation, he said.

“There are some good things in the bill that are needed,” said Bagnell, mentioning its prohibition of imprisoning young offenders in adult facilities. “It’s easier to talk about the good things because there are not as many of them.”

“Fortunately, I don’t think it mandates the longer and harsher sentencing. It gives the justices the option of it, but we have more faith in our judges that they will understand.”

Nieman doesn’t share that faith.

“We know that the courts are overcrowded across Canada,” he said.

“Another fear is that undiagnosed and untreated youth will simply be warehoused and punished without getting the treatment that they need. It would simply be a warehouse punishment.”

Identifying, diagnosing and treating people with mental illness at an early age as possible should be the goal, said Nieman - even before they come into conflict with the law.

“When we diagnose it and treat it at an early age, it’s going to save society millions and save people a lot of heartache instead of just warehousing them and perpetuating the situation and leaving them untreated. That’s just going to create a bigger problem down the road.”

Bill C-4 has undergone second reading and is currently in committee.

It has a long way to go, and with an election expected in the spring, its future is even more uncertain, said Bagnell.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at