Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I'm of course pleased to be taking part in this meeting and in your proceedings on Bill C-4.
I previously sent you a written submission, a brief, and I don't intend to read it or even provide an overview of it. I'm simply going to summarize my concerns about the bill, in order to allow my colleagues as much time as possible and to speak with committee members.
I just want to give you some background, if I could, on the work we do so that you know where we're coming from.
I'm a child and youth advocate, as well as the ombudsman in New Brunswick, and for the time being the Access to Information and Privacy Commissioner as well. Hopefully, there will be a separate Access to Information and Privacy Commissioner soon.
Since about November 2006, I've been dealing with individual cases of youth and children, including youth who have been dealing with the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the justice system. So we have a very hands-on experience day in and day out. I have a number of people who work with me—some lawyers, some social workers, and others as well, with different areas of expertise. We intervene in different cases. We participate in case conferences and meet with families and the youth themselves. So it's very much an on-the-ground experience.
As well, we've published two reports fairly recently. Two years ago we published one report called Connecting the Dots, which really focused on youth with mental health issues and severe behavioural disorders and the experiences they and their families had with the service providers in New Brunswick. We made a series of recommendations. We followed seven youth and their families. The youth suffered from various ailments, including bipolar disorder, autism or autism spectrum disorders, and schizophrenia. Sadly, one committed suicide. But we followed the others over two years. We met with their families and we published a report with recommendations.
We also spent quite a bit of energy and resources reviewing the three years that Ashley Smith—whom you would be familiar with—spent in our New Brunswick Youth Centre. She spent three years in and out—mostly in—the New Brunswick Youth Centre. We reviewed 6,000 pages of documents and 40 hours of video. I assigned five investigators to that specific case. Tragically, as you know, she died in the federal system, but a lot of the issues there were very similar to those in the provincial system.
During those three years, Ashley spent two-thirds of her time in segregation--that is, in solitary confinement in an eight-by-ten cell, 23 hours a day more or less, with lights on 24 hours a day. If she didn't suffer from mental illness when she went in, she certainly did when she came out—and I would have, as well, Mr. Chairman, with respect.
She faced 501 institutional charges during those three years and 70 criminal charges during her lifetime, more than half for incidents inside the institution, not outside. She had 168 self-harm incidents, and she was tasered twice as a youth before she reached the age of 19 in an adult prison while waiting for transfer to a federal institution.
In that report, we made 25 recommendations.
I think we have a fairly good idea or view of how the system works on the ground. It's on that basis that I accepted your invitation to appear.
I know there is a broad range of opinions on the Youth Criminal Justice Act. In fact, in one meeting I heard it described that the Youth Criminal Justice Act, depending on your perspective, might stand for “you can justify anything”, YCJA, or “you can't jail anyone”. I think I'm situated somewhere outside of both of those definitions, but certainly, what I hope we know for sure is this. It's a new piece of legislation. It was meant to address a situation under the Young Offenders Act where Canada had the highest rate of youth incarceration in the world, I'm told. It was extremely high, in any event. At least today, it has worked. According to the research of Nicholas Bala and others, the trend is now definitely towards a reduction of youth crime. There is, as well, a reduction of youth incarceration. That translates to savings, savings financially, obviously, but also savings in emotional costs to families. All of these youth are somebody's son or daughter.
This experience, to me, is still early. It's been seven years in the lifetime of a piece of legislation. Recently I've been working with the Indian Act, which is much older than that; but seven years is a very short time, and I'm very concerned that these changes are premature.
There was a significant consultation in 2008. I participated in it and met Minister Nicholson in August 2008 in New Brunswick. I know that my participation was a small part of the participation nationwide. I have yet to receive the results of that consultation. I think it would be critical information for members of the committee to have access to that. It's hard for you to decide on a piece of legislation without knowing what thousands—well, certainly hundreds—of Canadians had to say about it. The session I attended in Moncton included police, psychiatrists, social workers, and prison guard associations. It was a really diverse group of people, and they had a lot to say. I think you would be very well advised to take advantage of that. Personally, I can say that I know there have been written reports, but none have been published. So I'd love to be able to see what was said during all of those consultations. There was a consultant hired to write a report and to facilitate the sessions. His name was Roger Bilodeau.
As well, we haven't done a really good job of making full use of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. I think that's because it's still a very young piece of legislation.
In the case of New Brunswick, for example, the part of the act that permits the use of case conferences is really not used very much.
Justice Canada recently asked my office to conduct an analysis of the use of the act in New Brunswick to establish a model that would enable us to make better use of the elements that already exist but that are not very well known as a result of the recent nature of the act.
It seems to me we should further explore the opportunities afforded by the act as it currently stands before proceeding with changes that are quite significant.
I won't into the details because my main argument is that we are going way too fast. Instead we should analyze what has already been done and determine whether that's working or not. What interests committee members and the Canadian public, in my view, are the results at the end of the process.
What interests us are outcomes, very real concrete outcomes. So if you don't have the benefit of a complete analysis of what's happened so far under this piece of legislation, I think you take the risk of taking us back in time to the Young Offenders Act, the high incarceration rates, and here we go all over again. That is the concern I am expressing to the committee.
I have a lot of sympathy for Sébastien and his family and for others who are victims of crime. As ombudsman, I often am called upon to advocate on their behalf as well. My concern when I saw it was that it's a very tragic story. But by calling it “Sébastien's Law”, I guess the question I ask myself is when will we have “Ashley's Law”, a law for those who are victims of the criminal justice system? Ashley cried out for help and she became progressively worse while in contact with the system.
There are thousands of young Canadians out there who suffer from mental illness, from severe behaviour disorders, from addiction, who come in contact with the criminal justice system, and they should be diverted, directed towards treatment, not incarceration. Inevitably, incarceration makes their conditions worse. The justice system, including the prison system, is just not equipped to deal with these kinds of youth.
My fear is that while driving more of these youth towards incarceration, we're actually taking youth who are confused, sometimes suffering from all kinds of conditions, or who just make errors in judgment.... And I would say that outside of this room, likely most youth make errors of judgment sometimes, but not as severe as.... I know I have. Although I said “outside of this room”, I can confess that as a teenager.... And I have four sons who have been teenagers, and I am happy they're adults now, but they have made their own mistakes, yes.
I'll close on that, Mr. Chair.
I would ask you to carefully consider looking at where we've come from. I'm afraid that if we look at high-profile cases of violent crime by youth in order to change what I think is groundbreaking, very progressive legislation, we're proceeding on the wrong basis and we'll have the wrong results. That's my concern.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.