Les Leyne: Closing youth custody centre foolish

Les Leyne mugshot genericClosing the Victoria Youth Custody Centre is an almost indescribably foolish idea.

It’s barely understandable when thinking about it in the short term — which is all the government is interested in.

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It’s absurd when considering it in the medium term.

It’s incomprehensible to anyone looking at the situation with the long term in mind.

The move was suspect right from the minute Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux alluded to some vague “update on youth justice services” that was to be added into her response to a report from the Representative for Children and Youth.

Out of the blue, she announced the only youth detention centre on Vancouver Island will be closed, because the government can’t afford to keep it open.

The good news is the usage rate has plummeted, here and elsewhere, and the place is barely a quarter full. The bad news is the government is staying wilfully blind to the desperate need in other service areas for which the facility could easily be used.

The decision is particularly dubious given Cadieux’s remarks on the topic just one month ago.

NDP MLA Carole James asked her directly about changes to youth justice facilities. Cadieux’s answer: “At this point, we have no plan in place to make any significant changes because we’re still looking at what our options are to maintain the best service for the youth that we do have in custody.”

A few months before that the same question came up and the answer was: “No foreseeable closure of youth services at this time.”

On Tuesday, she explained the gaping discrepancy between her public comments by saying there were no plans at the time she was asked the questions. So, the ministry struggled with the issue for months and then came up with a sudden plan to shut it down and she rushed it out to the public.

Unlikely. The dramatic decline in custody rates suggests closure has been on the table for months.

The $14-million centre, alongside the TransCanada Highway near the Colwood turnoff, opened only 12 years ago so by facility standards is still fairly new. By the government’s numbers, the custody rate started to drop practically from the day it opened.

With just 15 male youths in custody on an average day in a place built for 60, there’s a case to be made for repurposing the centre. But closing it down entirely is dead last on the list of ideas that make sense.

A wing for juvenile females was shut down earlier. Last year, at least two judges openly apologized to female offenders for the conditions in which they were being held — in police station lockups with minimal access to so much as a shower. A number of lawyers and others have expressed disgust at the appalling, demeaning and discriminatory way female offenders are treated in Victoria. They’re held at police stations or carted off to Burnaby. Then the system spends a fortune shuttling them back and forth.

Instead of doing something real about that, Cadieux has figured out a novel way to address the discrimination. She’s going to bring the treatment of young males down to the same shoddy level. And foreclose on the option of partly converting it to a female remand centre by shutting it down.

As for the full day it will take families to visit anyone in the Burnaby centre, she said that’s the way it is for any juvenile incarcerated away from home.

There’s room to handle some other pressing needs as well. Vancouver Island has some big holes in its youth mental-health treatment network. There are big shortfalls in addiction services. Anyone paying attention could compile a long list of needs the facility could address.

But B.C. is losing $4.5 million a year in federal funding based on per-head payments for youth in custody. The ministry wants to make it up, so they’re closing the doors.

It might look good in this year’s budget. But the further out you look, the dumber this idea gets. It’s a remarkably short-sighted call that’s going to provoke a heated argument in the justice system with people who are thoroughly fed up with these sorts of decisions.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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