Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Mississauga South.
I am pleased to enter this debate today on behalf of the people of my riding of Waterloo—Wellington who feel strongly about our criminal justice system. Certainly as the former chairman of the Waterloo regional police, I too have a strong and keen interest in justice matters as they relate to Canada.
I note with great dismay that the opposition motion is proposing to criticize the government for, among other things, failing to deliver youth justice programs and legislation that reflect the concern of Canadians.
Let me remind the House that our government launched a strategy for the renewal of youth justice on May 12, 1998 that will be effective in dealing with the complex problem of youth crime. I point out that it is complex and not a simplistic matter as the Reform Party would paint it.
Moreover, last week this government tabled a bill that is a key component of the youth justice strategy, the youth criminal justice act. The recent federal budget included $206 million over the next three years to ensure that programs are put in place to help achieve the objectives of the legislation. This is but a recent example of a long list of initiatives we as a government have undertaken over the years to protect Canadians wherever they may live in this great land of ours.
The government's strategy for the renewal of youth justice recognizes the foremost objectives of public protection. It distinguishes between legislation and programs appropriate for the small group of violent young offenders and those appropriate for the vast majority of non-violent young offenders. It takes a much broader, more integrated approach and emphasizes prevention and rehabilitation. This is precisely what Canadians want us to do.
The issue facing us and those interested in the youth justice system is not whether the system should be tough or lenient but whether to be made to deal with crime in a sensible way. The proposals as outlined indicate clearly that youth crime should be met with meaningful consequences. What is meaningful depends in large part on what the young offender has done.
For example, most of us believe that youths who commit minor thefts or who are found to be in possession of stolen property should be held accountable for their actions. Last year we sent 4,355 of them into custody where the most serious offence was one of minor property offences. Another 4,332 youths were put in custody for the offence of failure to comply with a disposition, typically violating a term of probation order.
These are both offences and those who are found to have committed these offences should be held accountable. We know that and we think that is appropriate. These two groups of offences constitute over one-third of the custodial sentences handed down to youth last year. Being the lead jailer of children in the western world is surely not a preferred answer to our problems with youth crime.
The median custodial sentence for youth is 45 days. This will cost us as taxpayers as much as $9,000. Let me be clear here. No one is saying these youths should not be held accountable for their actions. They should and they will. Their offences should result in meaningful consequences. We must ask ourselves whether taking these youths to court and sending them to prison is invariably the best way to accomplish this. We need to ask ourselves whether it makes more sense to spend $9,000 locking up a minor thief or someone who has violated curfew or if there are other ways to spend that money.
The choice is not one of doing nothing or putting a young person in prison. There are programs in all parts of Canada for holding young people accountable for what they have done so they do not involve courts and jails but which do involve the victims.
The youth criminal justice act recognizes extrajudicial non-court measures as being important and the most effective way to deal with less serious youth crime. The act supports the use of such measures wherever they would be capable of holding the young person accountable, and this we must do.
The act clearly provides that these measures should encourage the repair of harm caused to the victim and to the community. They should also promote the involvement of families, victims and the community in ensuring an appropriate meaningful consequence for that young person. In order to encourage the use of creative and effective consequences for our young people, the act supports the appropriate exercise of discretion by police officers and prosecutors. The act recognizes a range of approaches that can provide meaningful consequences, including police warnings, formal cautions, referrals to community programs, cautions by prosecutors and other sanctions.
When the formal court process is required many sentences other than custody can provide meaningful consequences for youth crime. Community based alternatives are often more effective than custody and they are encouraged by this new legislation, particularly for low risk, non-violent offenders. Alternatives that require young people to repay victims and society for the harm done teach responsibility and respect for others and reinforce our shared social values. When these front end measures and non-custodial sentences are used effectively the provinces can reinvest the money that is saved into crime prevention strategies that will address the legitimate concerns Canadians have about crime.
As part of its strategy for the renewal of youth justice, the federal government has committed itself to a wide range of prevention programs, which is important.
In this context I was not surprised to learn recently that public opinion polls show that over 85% of Ontario residents would prefer money to be invested in crime prevention, which is much more than would want additional prisons for youth. This reflects the thinking of the residents of Waterloo—Wellington. Almost as many people, 79%, would prefer us to invest in alternatives to prison for youth rather than in prison construction. That is very telling and underscores the commitment of Canadians in this very important area.
The other side of the coin is that by dealing sensibly with minor crime we can refocus the system on the serious crime Canadians have legitimate concerns about. The new act's sentencing principles make it very clear that youth sentences should reflect the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the young person. Custody will be targeted to youth who commit violent and serious repeat offences.
In the new legislation judges will be required to impose a period of supervision in the community following custody that is equal to half the period of the custody. This will allow authorities to closely monitor and control the young person and to ensure he or she receives the necessary treatment and programs to return successfully to the community. The period of supervision administered by the provinces will include stringent mandatory and optional conditions tailored to the individual.
If a youth's sentence is not adequate to hold the young person accountable, the court may impose an adult sentence. The new legislation will make it easier to impose adult sentences for the most serious violent offenders. We are expanding both the list of offences and lowering the age at which youth can receive an adult sentence. When the legislation is passed, youth 14 and older who are convicted of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, aggravated sexual assault, et cetera, will receive an adult sentence unless a judge can be persuaded otherwise.
We are creating a fifth presumptive category for repeat violent offenders where young offenders 14 and older who demonstrate a pattern of violent behaviour will receive an adult sentence unless a judge can be persuaded otherwise. This repeat offender presumption is in addition to the fact that even one serious offence can result in an adult sentence if the prosecutor requests it and the court is satisfied it is appropriate.
The proposed legislation provides for a new sentencing option for the most violent high risk young offenders. The intensive rehabilitative custody and supervision order provides greater control and guaranteed treatment to address the causes of the young person's violent behaviour. An individualized plan of treatment and intensive supervision must be approved by the court. Additional federal resources have been allocated for the costs of this new sentencing option.
Accomplishing the objectives of the new legislation will not be easy. Clearly much of the work needs to be done by the provinces which administer Canada's criminal law. We know that.
Thus it is important that there be adequate time for discussion and implementation planning with the provinces and others involved in the administration of our youth justice system in order to ensure that we have the best possible youth justice system that can respond appropriately to the wide range of problems brought to it.
Youth crime cannot be legislated away. We can, however, deal with it more appropriately than we are doing at the moment. We can set up effective programs outside the youth justice system and custodial and non-custodial rehabilitation programs within it that will reduce crime. I think it is important that we move in that manner.
The government has and will continue to deliver on criminal justice programs. The youth criminal justice act is the most recent example of our ability to deal effectively and compassionately with these kinds of very complex issues. As a result we have enhanced the safety and security of Canadians no matter where they live in this great country. All Canadians are well served by the actions of our government when it comes to these kinds of matters.