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A recent Statistics Canada analysis suggests that changes in law enforcement’s approach to young offenders has led to far fewer young people ending up in the criminal justice system over the past 10 years. Over that time, there’s been a 55 per cent decline in the total number of youth convictions, according the data showing guilty cases by length of probation.

“We are looking at law enforcement from a new perspective,” says Joe Couto, communications director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

Youth convicted of serious offenses risk ending up at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. [Photo ©Joshua Soucie]

Canadian police and media traditionally saw youth offenders as criminals and therefore treated them as such, says Couto. Instead of penalizing offenders, preventative and diversion programs have been developed.

According to the Statistics Canada dataset, titled “Youth courts, guilty cases by length of probation,” the most common charges that young people were found guilty of — breaking-and-entering, theft and assault — have dropped considerably. There were 2,974 guilty findings for break-and-entering in 2005, a number that dropped to 1,046 in 2015.

The survey collected data on youth, ages 12 to 17 at the time of the offence.

“Rather than simply arresting them and putting them through the justice system [as policemen] we’re attacking the issues that drive offenders,” says Couto.

Deviancy is often associated with criminality, but Couto says he tries to look at it in another way.

“Traditionally crime has been seen as deviance,” says Couto. “Young offenders were seen as younger criminals and were therefore treated as such.”

The Ontario rate of youth offences is about 0.4 youth offenders per 1,000 people, sitting well below the national average of 1.8 per thousand youth.

The top five youth offenses are break-and-enter, theft, assault, robbery. [Photo ©Joshua Soucie]

“In Ontario, we’ve had an emphasis on diversion programs,” says Couto. “Officers have the discretion to not charge younger offenders and instead, direct them to social services, particularly for minor, petty crimes.”

Gordon Boyd, the director of Ottawa’s youth detention centre, says there’s less and less need for the 40 beds in the William E. Hay Centre.

The William E. Hay Centre serves marginalized youth through various skill-building and rehabilitation programs. [Photo ©Joshua Soucie]

“We have the opportunity to shift our resources to do other work to help young people stay out of trouble with the law,” says Boyd who’s referring to the shift to outreach work within communities.

As a result of diversion efforts, Canada’s 2015 youth incarceration rate was 1.8 people per thousand. Ten years prior, in 2005, it was 19.5 people per thousand.

“It’s important to remember that these kids have a future,” says Boyd. “They make mistakes, but they can move on from that.”

The William E. Hay Centre offers a wide range of programming. While working on their social skills, young adults can continue their high school education at the centre. Beyond skills-building courses and apprenticeships in dry-walling, woodworking, and small engine repair, young adults are encouraged to find new ways to express themselves.

This is the William E. Hay Centre, a juvenile detention centre in East Ottawa, that houses 40 young men between 12 and 17. [Photo ©Joshua Soucie]

“We want kids to be successful within the community and passionate people who have been integrated in a positive way,says Boyd.

Faith programs, drumming circles and art classes are just a few of the ways youth can express themselves creatively. One particular program that has shown a lot of success is BlueprintForLife. It’s a hip-hop, dance-based program which incorporates spoken word poetry in their work.

This painting was created for the BlueprintForLife, an arts program for at risk youth, and hangs in the William E. Hay Centre. [Photo ©Joshua Soucie]

“Spoken words can manifest change by rephrasing the way youth see the world and it’s changing the pathway for young people,” says Boyd.

It’s easy to say youth coming from low-income families are most at risk, but the Statistics Canada study delves further into the commonalities between youth offenders. Gender plays a large role. Although the total number of offences has significantly decreased, the gender proportion has stayed almost constant. About 80 per cent of youth offenders are male.

The study also shows that there is no significant difference in the youth delinquency between children whose parents were immigrants and those with non-immigrant parents. But children from single-parent households or living with step-families were almost twice as likely to offend.

Social support and access to education are only one of the many puzzle pieces, says Couto. “They’re coming from domestic situations that drive them outside of the home.”

Looking to the future, Couto says he expects the numbers to go down even more.

The youth conviction rate will likely continue to drop in coherence with the new legislation on the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, which is set to roll out this year.

“We won’t be charging any of these people with possession because they will be carrying a legal product,” says Couto.

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