A plan to close the Victoria Youth Custody Centre will save the B.C. government about $4.5 million a year, but critics warn the move will also put vulnerable young people at risk.
Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux announced Monday that the government can’t afford to keep the jail open because fewer young people are ending up behind bars.
The province spends about $400,000 a month to house an average of 15 boys a day in the 60-bed facility. The girls’ unit closed in 2012.
The province says young offenders from Vancouver Island will be held at youth custody centres in Burnaby or Prince George once the Victoria jail closes.
But Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree issued a memo to provincial court judges Monday telling them that youth in Victoria on pre-court detention, short periods of remand or those serving short sentences will be held in police cells.
“That’s a dangerous thing, because young kids will be exposed to others who may be more serious offenders — even if they just listen and hear them screaming, yelling or threatening,” said B.C.’s representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
Richard Schwartz, previous chairman of the Canadian Bar Association section for youth justice, called the situation “appalling.”
“Holding kids in police lock-up is completely contrary to the principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act,” he said, noting the law stipulates that the criminal justice system for young persons must be separate from adults.
Cadieux said the savings will offset a loss of federal money due to the declining number of young people in custody across the province.
There were about 74 young people in jail on any given day last year compared to an average of 220 in 2003.
As a result, the province’s three youth custody centres in Prince George, Victoria and Burnaby currently operate at about 56 per cent capacity, she said.
The ministry was unable to say when the Victoria centre will close or how many people will lose their jobs.
It’s also unclear what will happen to the building, Cadieux said.
NDP children’s critic Carole James expressed concern that the 12-year-old building will be sold to boost government revenue.
“This is a relatively new facility,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you use it for the incredible pressures we’re seeing on children and families? Why wouldn’t you use it for respite, specialized care, youth mental health? I can think of a long list.”
The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union offered to work with government to find new uses for the building, said president Darryl Walker.
“Frankly, we met as recently as a couple of weeks ago with the minister and, at that time, were given no indication whatsoever that this was once again on the block to be closed down,” he said.
“We find it a little disingenuous that we weren’t give a heads up about it. The media actually received information about it before our members who work there.”