No-frills prisons, boot camps, tough love gone amok: that was the Tory tonic for youth crime. Ask the Liberals - they're the ones who, in opposition, vowed to change all that.
But now, a few years later, youth justice advocates are stunned to find the Liberals sticking to a failed policy of stuffing a large group of troubled 16- and 17-year-olds from across the GTA into one mega-slammer.
The new $81 million facility, the Greater Toronto Area Youth Centre, is slated to open in 2007 in Brampton. And prison reformers can't believe McGuintyites are obsessing about a superjail at exactly the moment when educated opinion and federal legislation has come to favour local, community-based detention for young offenders.
It's certainly easy to catalogue the disasters that have driven the call for decentralized jails. In 2000 the province closed the Metro West Detention Young Offenders Unit, and in 2003 the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre (TYAC). These holding and custody jails were plagued by violence, bullying and inadequately trained staff.
It took the 2002 death of David Meffe, the confused and scared 16-year-old who hanged himself while in custody at TYAC awaiting trial for a minor offence, to galvanize public opinion against these mega-prisons. A coroner's jury following the inquest recommended a series of small community-oriented youth detention facilities across the GTA.
But the Liberals, weirdly, are pretending that report doesn't exist. "In opposition, the Liberals repeatedly slammed the 'superjail' concept," says Peter Kormos, NDP provincial justice critic. "They read the coroner's recommendations after David Meffe's death. They're ignoring the evidence because they want to save some cash," says Kormos, pointing out that land in Brampton is cheap and that one giant jail would serve the Libs' bottom line.
Andrew Weir, spokesperson for Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, the Minister for Children and Youth Services, (who was moved to another cabinet post last week) admits there is a cash issue but says it arises because the ministry now has much higher standards for rehabilitation services.
The government, he says, does not want to repeat the mistakes made by the Tories and instead prefers to use trained professional youth workers - something too expensive to offer at small, local detention centres. "If the facility is large enough, you can offer very sophisticated programming that does a lot of good for the youth."
Furthermore, the new jail - a holding tank for 192 young people awaiting trial or sentencing or serving time - will be split into 16-person units, with each young person having his or her own single room, a much less alienating environment than institutions of the past, according to the ministry.
"This does reflect a new way of approaching youth justice that will meet the dual imperatives of keeping communities safe and at the same time offering the best prospects for rehabilitation for these youth," says Weir.
He adds that fewer young offenders are being jailed in Ontario, because of the 2003 federal Youth Criminal Justice Act, which directs judges to consider alternatives to incarceration in their sentencing.
All well and good, say youth advocates, but why aren't the Libs actually constructing those alternatives?
According to Matthew Geigen-Miller, one of a group of young people who had standing at the Meffe coroner's inquest, the province is underutilizing section 93 of the Ontario Child And Family Services Act. This directs the justice system to consider open detention facilities - group homes with restrictions on those held - as the first option for a young person age 12 to 17 charged with a non-serious crime.
Instead, the Children and Youth Ministry has gone in the opposite direction by closing several hundred open custody and open detention beds across Ontario, claiming they are operating under 40 per cent capacity.
This decision will have unfortunate consequences, says Geigen-Miller, who speaks from personal experience with the youth justice system and is now a University of Ottawa philosophy student. "My concern is that less serious offenders will continue to be put in jail. If the GTA Youth Centre is built, then the tendency will be to use the facilities that are available rather than explore the possibility of expanding the use of open detention."
Bruce Williams, an adolescent psychiatrist at Youthdale Treatment Centres in Toronto bemoans the cutback in group home facilities at a time of a shortage of non-jail alternatives and therapies for troubled youth. "It disturbs me to hear that they are closing open custody programs while closed [jail] beds are filling up. Shouldn't it be the other way around?"
But some believe the new superprison may be breaking new ground. Rev. Rod Carter, director of the restorative justice diploma program at Queen's University theological college, says the concept of splitting the GTAYC into small segregated "pods" or cottage-style units of inmates can be useful for rehabilitation. "They will use the communal living, the pods, for those that are on best behaviour, and the others will be on a traditional range of cells."
Still, that doesn't mean there aren't dangers for young inmates. The Lord Of The Flies scenario described in the 1954 William Goldman classic is still possible in the contemplated 16-person units, adds Rev. Carter, where "the heavies will prey on the weak."
Although clearly uncomfortable with the emphasis on youth incarceration at Queen's Park, the John Howard Society takes credit for playing a role in convincing the Ministry of Children and Youth Services to reduce the size of the planned jail from the Liberals' original plan of 224 beds last June.
The agency's Toronto-based exec director, Paula Osmok, says a sea change in attitudes toward youth justice has occurred since the defeat of the Conservatives. "We want to work with the ministry to mitigate any of the damage that results from such a large facility."
Meanwhile, the Prisoners' Justice Action Committee is campaigning on an anti-GTAYC message. The organization is using workshops and entertainment to educate young people themselves on how school improvements, recreation, family support and good social services are the keys to ending criminal behaviour.
The PJAC's 81 Reasons campaign has been endorsed by Defence for Children Canada (where Geigen-Miller is a board member), the Anglican Diocese Working Group on Justice and Corrections (of which Bruce Williams is the chair) and William Sparks, a former executive director of the John Howard Society.
Marika Schwandt, a PJAC organizer and prison abolitionist, says increased numbers of open detention and custody facilities are not the answer. "There is no point in arguing for a softer, fuzzier kind of jail for kids. I want to argue for community programs that are directed at reasons for kids doing crime."