(This article has been translated into French.)

The federal government has begun to look at ways of ensuring young people charged under the Youth Criminal Justice Act are diverted by police and the courts to specialized programs and services that provide comprehensive supports. It’s critical that these supports represent a collaborative approach among governmental, non-profit and community programs and services that include but are not limited to: Educational assistance, employment, mental health, familial supports, mentorship and social isolation reduction.

For Youth Initiative, where I work, received federal funds in 2014 for a three-year comprehensive gang intervention program that employs these programs and services.

While the government’s efforts are encouraging, there continues to be a one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to addressing youth criminality. For example, Public Safety Canada convened a “guns and gangs” meeting in March 2018 of provincial and federal government, police, community and Indigenous representatives to address gun violence, illegal gun ownership and to “make vulnerable young people less susceptible to the ‘insidious lure’ of gang activity.” But the over-representation of law enforcement and academic institutions, along with the under-representation of youth-focused community and social services representatives, highlight a continuing blind spot about the roots of youth involvement with guns, gangs, violence and criminality more generally. This is particularly true for historically marginalized communities in Canada.

The familiar language of “guns and gangs” is part of the type of “law-and-order” agenda that’s politically expedient but offers little in terms of actual success. The public doesn’t wind up hearing much about the large body of evidence around how to effectively and comprehensively address youth criminality.

What’s required is a focus on justice for victims, perpetrators and their communities so that a holistic approach is taken to prepare youth for the future and give them real opportunity to experience their full potential. That’s what will move youth away from guns, gangs, violence and criminality.

A justice focus for youth requires an understanding that the Canadian legal system has operated in unequal terms.

A justice focus for youth requires an understanding that the Canadian legal system has operated in unequal terms. The racial and economic disparity between who is imprisoned and who is not is the most damning evidence against the reliance on police, courts and prisons.

The Canadian government must finally accept the reality that policing, courts and prisons are not solutions to criminality but rather tools of a system that further marginalizes historically oppressed communities; particularly Indigenous and Black communities. Data on Canadian Indigenous and Black inmate over-representation is similar to American data on Black inmates.

In Ontario, there are five times more Indigenous boys and four times more Black boys in the young male jail population than what they represent in the general young male population.

Furthermore, research shows that there is a concentration of youth violence and criminality within marginalized communities, such as Indigenous and Black communities, suggesting youth criminality is linked to alienation, economic inequality and growing anger and resentment, especially among young, low-income, racially marginalized men.

In Toronto, for example, there are long-established inequalities in areas that include education, employment, income, housing and health. These disparities are not only concentrated geographically but along racial, class and gender lines.

It’s time for Canada to implement policies that address the root causes of crime in the communities where youth live.

A justice focus requires meaningfully investing in early childhood well-being and opportunities for young people in the most marginalized communities. Doing so is actually a more fiscally, as well as socially, responsible path to reducing criminality and violence. The benefits are therefore potentially astronomical because we would be able to better allocate the large amount of resources dedicated to police, courts and prisons to include community and social service partners. It must be done if we’re to shift the focus on youth criminality to a justice focus, which is much more complex and requires the involvement of many partners beyond law enforcement.

Police now have an opportunity to partner with community and social service organizations that are currently equipped with community outreach workers, social workers and youth workers. Police forces across the country are currently debating the need to provide more effective services while managing ballooning policing budgets, abuse of vulnerable communities, increased demands to do more community engagement and their ability to adapt to technological advancements.

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In Toronto, for example, police and policy-makers have been grappling with these issues in several ways over the last few years, meaning it’s an opportune time to collaborate with social service agencies to address youth justice.

In 2012, the Toronto Police Service attempted to respond to claims of racism and discrimination by developing the Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER). The result was a report that contained 31 recommendations focusing on public accountability, governance, community consultation, professional standards, human resources, performance management, information management, operational improvements, intelligence-led policing, corporate communications and project management.

Furthermore, in 2017, Toronto police also developed the Transformational Taskforce, with its goal to better focus on what the public most needs from police, embrace partnerships to create safe communities and better zero in on the complex needs of a large city.

Both these Toronto initiatives highlight an understanding that policing is about much more than arrests, convictions and prisons. They rely on more community expertise. The economics of these proposals would allow for a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars to enhance youth justice. The savings that come from investing in social services and community work could be reinvested in further infrastructure to address the social, political and economic inequalities that lead to youth criminality.

Redirecting the focus of police from arresting and processing youth through courts and prisons and mandating that all kids under 18 must be directed to a youth justice services will help address the causes of youth criminality.

Going even further, though, collaborations between law enforcement and specialized youth justice programs may very well alter the very nature of interactions between police and Black, Indigenous and other racially marginalized youth and their communities. Redirecting the focus of police from arresting and processing youth through courts and prisons and mandating that all kids under 18 must be directed to a youth justice services will help address the causes of youth criminality.

My work at For Youth Initiative represents a recognition by the federal government that there is a need to find alternatives to the status quo. The success of the program can be seen in the partnership we’ve been able to develop with different law enforcement agencies while still maintaining a community engagement focus. Of the 100-plus young people who have come through our program over a three-year period, only six percent have re-offended. But these six percent were still able to get support and services from For Youth Initiative that mitigated any future criminal activity. Furthermore, at the close of the program, participants reported an increase in academic grades and ability, growing feelings of support and more networks for them to turn to, as well as a reduction in criminal engagement.

However, even with this type of success from For Youth Initiative and similar programs, funding and government partnerships remain inconsistent and rarely move beyond the pilot phase.

It’s imperative that Canada increase its commitment to such programs to increase youth justice, because it’s unsustainable to rely on non-profits using charitable dollars and other types of fundraising. Governments cannot continue to outsource this work to community and social service partners without properly resourcing and partnering with them.

This type of initiative is not the only solution to addressing racial and economic injustice. But it’s an example of how to address the systemic mechanisms that allow them to flourish. It is time for Canada to truly get behind a justice focus for youth.

This article is part of the Widening the Lens on Criminal Justice Reform special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Photographee.eu

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Yafet Tewelde
Yafet Tewelde is a community activist and PhD candidate at York University specializing in Black studies, critical race theory, multiculturalism, and policing.

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