Young people in jail: provincial rates among highest in country

By Gaven Crites

According to government data, Saskatchewan incarcerates its youth population at a far greater rate than most of the country.
Newest available data shows youth incarcerations are close to four or five times higher in Saskatchewan and Manitoba compared to other provinces, a distinction the two provinces have shared for some time now.
Karen Srodulski, area legal director for Legal Aid Saskatchewan, has been practising law for more than 12 years, the last four-and-a-half in the Meadow Lake area.
The majority of her clients are First Nations youth. The issue is something she’s familiar with, but she can’t point to an exact reason for why the situation is what it is.
“I don’t want to say it’s because of a lack of discretion on police or on the courts,” she said. “I really don’t know what the answer is.”
Statistics Canada numbers for 2011 indicate an incarceration rate of 23.17 per 10,000 young persons in Saskatchewan. In British Columbia, that number is 3.28 and 5.9 in Ontario. For 2010 (most recent) in Alberta, the number is 5.85.
Cpl. Natasha Szpakowski of the Meadow Lake RCMP said, unfortunately, she thinks the provincial reality reflects the situation locally.
“I think it correlates no differently than what I hear in the news and what you see around the community,” she said, adding, she thinks there are a lot of factors to consider and it’s not the RCMP’s goal to see youth put in jail.
“It certainly gets frustrating sometimes for the families and the communities to see the kids who are causing the problems to be released back in (the community),” she said. “The whole idea is to really try and get them some sort of counselling or rehabilitation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.”
With respect to sentencing, the courts are governed by the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which stipulates when a young person can even be considered for incarceration.
Senior Crown prosecutor Lloyd Stang said custody is very much a last resort for youth in the court system.
“It is extremely rare that someone would ever get custody for their first, second or third offence,” he said. “It’s always the repeat offenders who are really causing a lot of problems.”
From Srodulski’s perspective, there might be something structurally wrong with the system, but she doesn’t want to put the blame solely on any one particular aspect of it. Although, she added that officers and the Crown should use discretion when charging and prosecuting young offenders without a criminal background for crimes that some might consider petty.
Stang has been a prosecutor in Meadow Lake for 14 years. He said the Crown’s view is the criminal justice system can’t fix everything.
“Most young offenders come to the court with a long laundry list of problems that already exist in their life – such as broken homes or family or parents that have problems – it’s often a question of what resources are there to help the family, or lack of resources there to help a family, which leads kids to get into trouble,” he said. “It’s a sense they’re already on a pretty negative path before they get into the court system.”
Srodulski reiterated that point.
“We also have to look at other parts of society, to ask, ‘Are we helping those people who need help, who need that cheque at the end of the month, who need housing, who need more ideas about school?’” she said. “That’s where it starts.”

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