An Unnecessary Choice

An Unnecessary Choice

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

Jail Cell
(Jail cell image via Shutterstock)

NEEPAWA, Man. — Where do we want our young offenders to be spending their time? The Winnipeg School Division board chair would like to see them in school. This week, Mark Wasyliw, who is also a defence lawyer, proposed a pilot project that would move bail and probation officers into the division’s schools. The school board will vote on the proposal later this month. If it’s passed, the provincial government will have to approve the project before it can be implemented.

Wasyliw explained that in order to meet with their probation officers, which many offenders must do weekly, young offenders must travel to an industrial area in St. James. For most students, this takes three bus trips and half of a school day. In the pilot project, the bail and probation officers would rotate through the different schools and meet with students in discrete office space.

Wasyliw was quoted by the CBC, saying, “I’ve been a defence lawyer for 17 years and I’ve acted for young people who have been arrested and denied bail over what we call technical breaches.” He explained that these breaches can include failing to sign a form once a week at a probation office and can result in the youths’ re-arrest.

The proposal could prove to be a solution that is beneficial to both young offenders and the justice system. School is where the students should be and Wasyliw was quoted as saying, “These students are often at high risk, they’re living pretty unstable lives… whatever we can do to keep them in a caring, safe structured environment, like a school, will help them.”

According to Statistics Canada, in 2014, there were almost 101,000 youth aged 12 to 17 accused of Criminal Code violations (excluding traffic) in Canada. While youth make up seven percent of the Canadian population, they still comprise 13 percent of persons accused of crime. This is despite a youth crime rate that has been falling from a peak in 1991.

Not surprisingly, Stats Can reports that police-reported youth crime usually involves relatively minor offences. In 2014, the most frequent criminal offences committed by Canadian youth were theft of $5,000 and under, mischief, cannabis possession and common assault, which is one of the less serious violent crimes. These are the sorts of crimes that don’t necessarily point to a violent and criminal future.

It’s time to find some new solutions. Manitoba has one of the country’s highest crime rates and the same holds for youth offenders. We need to find ways of keeping today’s young offenders from becoming tomorrow’s adult offenders. Manitoba has the fifth highest rate of youth crime and the second highest outside of northern Canada. In 2014, 7.798 percent of Manitoba youth between 12 and 17 were accused of a crime; this is close to double the rate found in other provinces, such as British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario.

It’s time to look at other alternatives. Studies have shown that as education levels, particularly at the high school level, rise, participation in crime declines. Data also shows that incarceration makes a student less likely to complete high school. For most young offenders, school is where they should be. Anything that’s taking them out of the classroom is potentially having a significant impact on their future.

The goal is for young offenders to put their bad choices and criminal pasts behind them and go on to be productive members of our society. Making them choose between missing school and complying with their bail or parole conditions shouldn’t be a choice with which they are regularly faced.