OP-ED: ‘True North’ Youth Justice Reform: Lessons from Ontario

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JZcolumn-600The two big trends to watch in American youth justice policy have focused on reducing youth incarceration, and moving young people from adult prisons and jails into a reformed youth justice system.

These are positive trends that the field needs to build on, but it’s too soon to pop the champagne. Too many states still have direct file laws on the books where youth automatically end up in the adult system by their charge, Raise-the-Age efforts in a couple of states are slow to take hold, and as budget-strained states close youth facilities, the field faces new challenges in building, funding and sustaining the continuum needed to meet young people’s needs.

These challenges should not be seen as roadblocks in places like New York, California, North Carolina, Texas, Florida and a dozen other states where large parts of the reform agenda have yet to be fulfilled. If these states are looking for yet one more example that our broader youth justice vision can be achieved, you need only to go “north.”

In 2003, the Canadian federal government replaced the antiquated Youth Offenders Act — Canada’s equivalent of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act — with a new law. Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), the 10 provinces and two territories sought to implement a youth justice vision that recognizes young people’s unique adolescent development needs, divert youth from the justice system and meet their needs through other youth serving systems, expand the options that could serve as alternatives to youth prisons and improve rehabilitation and re-entry services for those few youth in locked custody. The provinces received modest funding from the federal government to implement the new law, but the 10 provinces were largely left to align their work with the YCJA on their own dime.

I attended a briefing with Ministry of Children and Youth Services in the province of Ontario (the largest province, which would be the fifth biggest state in the union should Ontario ever be invited to join), and heard a little more about how youth justice reform was playing out in the province over the past decade. Ontario has demonstrated that one can move toward a system with fewer youth locked up in the adult and juvenile justice systems, build community-capacity to serve youth at home and see positive public safety outcomes.

New Yorkers and North Carolinians should take note that while their states are establishing commissions to study the issue or allowing legislative efforts to stall, Ontario “Raised-the-Age.” Under the old system, youth justice services were split between two ministries based on age (12-15 in the youth justice system, with 16 and 17 year olds in the adult system). Since 2003, Ontario disentangled youth justice from adult corrections and created a dedicated youth justice system that includes 16- and 17-year-olds. Youth units co-located in adult facilities were closed, more community programs were established for teenagers, and the youth probation and parole were moved out of the adult corrections ministry and into the ministry responsible for youth and children’s services.

As Ontario “Raised-the-Age,” the province reduced the youth justice systems’ overall use of locked custody, cutting 600 beds out of the system. Today, Ontario, a province that has about 3 million residents more than Ohio, incarcerates fewer youth — a place that is a leader in reducing youth deincarceration.

Ontario expanded pre-charge diversion through partnerships with local police departments and expanded the number of community-based interventions to serve youth outside of a youth prison. Two hundred community programs were reported to be added to the system, with some focus toward more evidence-informed approaches to serving youth, targeted approaches for youth with mental health challenges, gender-responsive programming and different approaches for First Nations/Aboriginal Youth.

As the province closed locked beds for youth, $28 million was reallocated and reinvested to help expand diversion and community-based options. Since the Ministry for Children and Youth Services is also responsible for child welfare and prevention, it is the right place to integrate youth justice into the broader children and youth services system. The ministry has taken steps to build stronger links with ministries responsible for education, health and mental health.

Ten years later, what outcomes are Ontario’s new youth justice system achieving?

Youth detention admissions are down (though still too high), youth custody admissions are down significantly, more youth are receiving a community sentence instead of being locked up and provincial funds to support interventions for youth in the community were increased. Even a nefarious federal “tough on crime” bill passed in 2011 has reportedly — so far — not impacted the youth justice system in the way we feared it would.

Ontario, and the rest of Canada are by no means a youth justice utopia.

Similar to what was recently reported by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in a look at the trends in five representative counties, the disparities in Ontario between Aboriginal/First Nation’s representation in the system and white youth are widening: Fewer youth are locked up, but of those who remain, more of them are youth of color. Tension between police and communities of color continue to be a challenge in Ontario.

While the province has invested more in diversion, non-incarcerative interventions and community-based programs, the federal government has made significant cuts to provinces to support youth services. Depending on what happens in the next provincial election in June, youth services may take a more punitive turn.

Ontario’s youth justice system reports that it is working toward the kind of adolescently-sound, scientifically-based youth justice system that we’d all like to see across the United States. The province is facing the same challenges we are facing in places that are ahead of the curve in reducing youth imprisonment (continuing and widening disproportionate minority contact, a lack of investment in the youth services all young people need and the federal government backing out of support for youth justice services.

My takeaway from the Ontario tale: People in the United States can move ahead with “Raise-the-Age” efforts in New York, North Carolina and repeal juvenile transfer laws in other states, and simultaneously reform the overall youth justice system to integrate youth currently in the adult system, without negatively impacting public safety.

There will be challenges in implementation, and the very act of closing a prison or jail and changing the law will mean there will be a whole new terrain in youth justice that we will have to navigate.

But if Canada can start the process to build a sounder youth justice system, why should anyone in the United States settle for something less.

Jason Ziedenberg is the Research and Policy Director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank on juvenile and criminal justice issues.

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