Les Leyne: Time to rethink custody centre closing

There will be a concerted attempt Tuesday night to explain the many downsides to the government’s decision to shut down the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.

A number of officials who recognize the value of the centre and are concerned about losing it will be at Reynolds Secondary School at 7 p.m. to discuss the ramifications of the closure.

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The public meeting has been organized by the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, which represents staff at the institution.

Will it change the government’s mind?

Not by itself. The B.C. Liberal cabinet has held fast since Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux sprang it on the community on April 28.

Cadieux has held firm despite almost three weeks of well-grounded objections pointing out how short-sighted and damaging the closure will be. So far it’s been an exercise in ignoring the obvious, to the point where the government’s position is looking increasingly absurd.

Examples:

* Cadieux announced the imminent shutdown as a done deal without discussing it as an option during earlier meetings with those involved. The government has been consulting about changing priorities, to do with the much lower custody rates. But outright closure wasn’t on the table until she announced it.

She told my colleague Lindsay Kines there was no need to consult on the shutdown because it was an “operational decision.”

Even if that was just an impromptu response, it’s nonsensical. The YCC is a $14-million facility that is scarcely 12 years old. Abandoning it suddenly with no contemplation of using the place for other pressing needs isn’t an operational decision. It’s a policy gaffe of the first order.

* Asked about the shutdown this week, Premier Christy Clark said fewer youth are committing crimes and ending up in jail, “so I think that’s a pretty good news story.”

Clark was in the midst of a media scrum and handling lots of different issues. But that’s a tone-deaf response. The plummeting custody rate is good news.

But responding to it by walking away from the responsibility to treat the remaining offenders properly is very bad news.

* Social Development Minister Don McRae (Comox Valley) said none of his constituents have expressed any concerns. Reporting that comment brought a call to the Times Colonist from a Courtenay resident who had spoken at length to his constituency assistant about the issue just the week earlier.

Whether McRae is getting his office memos or not, people care about this issue.

There’s also been an underlying view that, with only two other such centres in B.C., lots of communities are already in the position that Vancouver Island could soon face — sending juvenile offenders hundreds of kilometres from home for processing.

Dragging this region of B.C. down to the same level in effect elsewhere isn’t sound policy.

Also in play is the closure of the wing for female offenders earlier. They got away with it in 2012, based on the much-lower female custody rate, so they’re trying it again with the males.

But that first closure has led to the enduring disgrace of confining girls in inappropriate adult police cells and shuttling them back and forth to Burnaby facilities.

It’s the worst possible model to follow. The YCC might not be widely needed, but it’s very badly needed.

The sole reason for the shutdown is to save $4.5 million a year in operational costs, money that used to come from federal transfers but evaporated when the usage rate started dropping. Tuesday night will be devoted to discussing how flimsy that reason is.

Just So You Know: The one glimmer of encouragement for people set on changing the government’s mind is its recent track record when it comes to acknowledging either mistakes or policies that aren’t working.

Clark stepped in and rescinded some staff raises when the heat was turned too high. She rescinded the patronage appointment of former minister John Les to an earthquake study when upset ensued. The government amended the Agricultural Land Reserve bill — marginally — in an attempt to respond to concern.

And this week the government gave up on the idea of a 10-year deal with teachers.

Time for another rethink.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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