POLITICS

Harper's Crime Bill Misguided, N.S. Experts Say

12/27/2011 09:39 EST | Updated 02/26/2012 05:12 EST
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Experts in Nova Scotia say the federal government's planned youth crime bill is misguided and runs counter to statistical evidence.

The Conservatives hope to pass their omnibus crime bill in the new year. It promises tougher sentences for crimes committed by young people, among other actions.

But Chandra Gosine, a senior defence lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid specializing in youth justice, said youth crime has been dropping.

He said the number of inmates in Waterville, a youth correctional facility in King's County, has been declining steadily, as has his own caseload.

"I think the portrayal of youth crime is driven both by the Conservative agenda, which inflames the public, instilling public paranoia in the criminal justice system, and by the reporting of youth crimes that are sensational," he said.

"The Conservative government intends to address all crime with incarceration, which is contrary to the philosophy and direction of both criminology, sociology and general perception in the legal fraternity, which is that rehabilitation pays better dividends than locking up people."

Media distorts view of crime

Diane Crocker, a criminologist at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said criminal cases involving youth violence receive intense media attention, but lesser crimes are not covered, creating a distorted view of youth crime.

She said Nova Scotia's restorative justice program for young people has been successful.

"It actually effectively intervenes in incidents of youth crime that then divert youth from the criminal justice system. [It's] a totally different approach to dealing with it; a non-punitive approach that is actually shown to be a very effective way of dealing with it," she said.

"We should be proud of that, as opposed to worrying about the terrible things we see in the media that are cases that are awful, but that don’t necessarily represent the landscape of crime in Nova Scotia."

She pointed to reports that found restorative justice cuts recidivism rates as well as increasing satisfaction for victims, offenders and community members. It did not lead to an increase in youth crime, she said.

Parole approach flawed, too

Crocker said the federal government's approach to parole was also flawed. She said statistics show the national parole board is doing a good job.

"We're seeing the number of breaches of parole conditions is going down. That means that, perhaps, the correctional services of Canada is getting better at designing conditions and monitoring people on parole," she said. "Our federal government seems to be under the perception that reducing access to parole, making it harder to get parole, is the way to go."

The criminal justice system works better with a staged release of offenders, rather than denying parole and then releasing them at the end of their sentences, she said.

Chandra agreed the restorative approach kept people out of criminal activity more effectively than the punitive method.

"Many of the young people who appear in the restorative justice system appear once and never again. The statistical information on that is very positive," he said. "A few young people graduate into adult crime, but they are among the minority."

Target causes of crime: police

Frank Beazley, the chief of police in the Halifax Regional Municipality, said media focus on young criminals unfairly created the impression that most young people are criminals.

"Most crime is committed by young people between the ages of 15 and 27, so you're constantly going to see the 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds in the news as people who have committed crimes," he said.

"You have to go a step further and realize that out of all our young people, the percentage doing the crimes is very small."

Beazley said when his officers deal with a young criminal, they often find factors such as lack of authority figures and other issues. "A lot of these young people come from broken homes, from single-parent homes; they’re living in poverty; mental health sometimes plays a role. And then there's the two big monsters that are out there — alcohol and drugs."

Beazley said he does not want to comment on politics or federal legislation, but he said police have to work with other agencies to tackle the root causes of crime.

"I'd like to create long-term plans that only governments can help with — long-term plans around poverty, a strategy to try and reduce poverty, more access to services for people with drug and alcohol problems, more access to services for people with mental-health problems," he said.

"If we could start today with a long-term plan to deal with any of those issues, maybe things would continue to improve more than they are today. Crime is falling, but I think it could be more dramatic with the right services and supports to people."

Bill awaiting Senate vote

The omnibus crime bill, called the Safe Streets and Communities Act, is sitting in the Senate awaiting a vote. The omnibus legislation bundles together measures from nine bills that did not pass in previous Parliaments, some of which had been identified previously as government priorities but died when the government prorogued Parliament or an election was called.

The Conservatives used motions to limit debate and speed along the omnibus crime legislation three times on its journey through the House of Commons this fall. Doing so was important, ministers said, because the measures were a key campaign commitment for the government.

It says the public backs its bill and it has gained the support of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and some victims' groups.

As legislation, it would better protect children from sexual predators, penalize drug dealers more strictly and target repeat, violent young offenders, the government says.

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