Cutting youth justice programs brings long-term consequences

Jul 30, 2012 By Matthew Friedberg

I am not surprised that the federal government is cutting funding for youth justice. Indeed, it is completely consistent with this government’s myopic approach to crime prevention and obsession with incarceration. I believe that probably the best and only true way to deal with crime prevention starts in the home and community with education and the fostering of virtue and values.

However, when that fails for a myriad of social reasons, the state is left to deal with the problem. This state intervention really manifests itself into two different modes of action.

The first focuses on rehabilitation and behaviour modification through education, community-based state sponsored programs and diversionary alternatives to punishment when the crimes are often committed by youth and where the criminal acts are usually less serious. At this stage, there is a better chance of reaching the person before he is beyond hope and rehabilitation. The goal is to change future behaviour, motives and values. The second is with penal consequences, including jail. It is base punishment – condemnation, retribution, deterrence. While many sentences in our courts include both rehabilitation and punishment in their makeup, let’s be honest, there is very little rehabilitative value in jail – at least in our detention centres.

It strikes me that we, as a society, should focus as much attention and resources on the rehabilitation of our youth as we possibly can. Our youth are our future; if we don’t try to rehabilitate them now, we will spend exponentially more down the road punishing them through incarceration.

We all stand to benefit from this approach. Its inherent value is obvious. I’m not saying there is no room for punishment in our system; far from it. Some people have to be removed from society. That’s a reality of living in a modern cosmopolitan world. However, to focus on punishment to the exclusion of rehabilitation should be a last resort. We, as a society, should do all we can for our fellow citizens before we need to lock them up.

The problem is that this government perceives this approach to be weak and soft on crime. In an age of oversimplification of issues, quick fixes and a fear-mongering media, cutting funds from “programs” and dumping them into prosecuting mandatory minimum sentences and incarceration appeals to many – it gets votes. However, cutting back on programs for troubled youth now only requires focusing on penal consequences in the long run. That hurts all of us because as the youth get older their crimes become more serious and hurtful to society. It also costs much more to incarcerate an adult than it does to rehabilitate a youth who is out of custody.

Sadly, the only thing that cutting back on youth justice does is require more money to be spent on adult justice. It seems to me that we’d all be better off trying to make our kids better now than writing them off as adults later. However, that takes vision, dedication of resources and a commitment to a future that goes well beyond the next election.


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