I remind members not only of the breadth and depth of the study that preceded the introduction of the bill but of the very strong arguments that were put forward to make sure the Young Offenders Act and the youth justice system would be changed. I further point out the extent to which the youth criminal justice act responds to the recommendations of task force and standing committee reports tabled over a number of years.
When the current Young Offenders Act was last amended in 1995 the government reiterated its commitment to conduct a comprehensive review of the legislation and the operation of the youth justice system. After a decade of experience with the Young Offenders Act it was time to step back and assess how the legislation and the youth justice system were working, and how they could be improved in ways that took into account the concerns and values of Canadians.
The standing committee on justice and legal affairs was asked to undertake an extensive review of the youth justice system. In carrying out its review the committee convened round table discussions, held a national forum, canvassed various parts of the country, heard from witnesses representing more than 100 different organizations and received more than 100 written briefs. The standing committee on justice and legal affairs released its report entitled “Renewing Youth Justice” in April 1997. It included significant findings about the youth justice system and made 14 recommendations for change.
Contributing to this comprehensive review by the standing committee was the report of a federal-provincial-territorial task force on youth justice. The task force, established in 1994 by the federal-provincial-territorial ministers responsible for youth justice, was given a mandate to review the Young Offenders Act and its application. The task force was composed of provincial, territorial and federal officials with expertise in youth justice. Its members worked in prosecution services, correctional services, statistics and research, youth law policy and law enforcement.
In proposing its response to the standing committee report entitled “Renewing Youth Justice” the federal government took into account not only the findings and recommendations of the report but also the findings of the task force and calls from Canadians across the country for a strategy to change the Young Offenders Act.
As a result, a strategy for the renewal of youth justice was released in May 1998. The strategy sets out the basic themes and policy directions contained in Bill C-7 and, perhaps more important, the rationale. The strategy identifies three key weaknesses in Canada's youth justice system.
First, not enough money is being put into the system to prevent young people from falling into a life of crime. Prevention has been mentioned by almost everyone in the House. My colleague who preceded me was very much of that mind and many members of the House have said very clearly that prevention is important. This is the direction in which we need to go.
Second, the system must improve the way it deals with the most serious violent youths, not just in terms of sentencing but in terms of ensuring they are provided with extensive, intensive, long term rehabilitation that considers their interests and those of society.
Third, the system relies too heavily on custody for the vast majority of non-violent young offenders when alternative, community based approaches could do better. The system must instil social values, help right wrongs and ensure that valuable resources are targeted where they are most needed.
In response to these weaknesses, the new strategy proposes to renew Canada's youth justice system with a focus on three key areas: crime prevention and effective alternatives to the formal youth justice system; meaningful consequences for youth crime; and rehabilitation and reintegration of young people. All of these, working together, will help society have a better system.
It commits us to target custody as a response to the more serious offenders and to provide more meaningful community based sanctions for the vast majority of youth crime, thereby contributing to a reduction in Canada's youth incarceration rates, which are among the highest in the western world.
For provincial and territorial governments, the federal financial commitment takes the form of a five year financial arrangement worth a total of $950 million to support the implementation of the youth criminal justice act and the overall policy objectives of the youth justice renewal initiative. The new agreements promote and support a wide range of services and programs considered most likely to assist in the rehabilitation and reintegration of young persons in conflict with the law and in reducing reliance on the youth court system and incarceration.
Additional federal funding would also be available to support the development of programs required for the implementation of the new intensive rehabilitation custody and supervision sentencing option. These financial arrangements are an important component of the flexible implementation phase undertaken in close co-operation with the jurisdictions.
Through the youth justice renewal fund, provincial and territorial ministries responsible for youth justice may apply for grants and contributions to assist in the preparation for and implementation of the youth justice renewal initiative. Funds are available for activities related to training, community partnership development or expansion, reintegration planning and support and implementation contingencies. Examples of such activities include: assessment of staff training needs in light of new legislation; development of policies that will govern youth justice committee work; review of policy and procedural materials; and development and delivery of orientation sessions on the new legislation for frontline workers, managers, administrators and youth justice committee members.
With respect to the legislative process, let me note that prior to the third reading of Bill C-7's predecessor, Bill C-3, the election call came. However, the government's commitment to move forward with new justice legislation remained strong. The Speech from the Throne to open the first session of the 37th parliament of Canada stated that the government would reintroduce legislation to change how the justice system deals with young offenders. New legislation would encourage alternatives to custody for non-violent offenders, emphasizing rehabilitation and reintegration into society while toughening consequences for more violent youth.
This commitment to reintroduce youth justice legislation has been kept. Bill C-7 was introduced in the House of Commons on February 5. Bill C-7 is basically the same bill previously introduced as Bill C-3, except that Bill C-7 incorporates government amendments that were made public before the election call. The inclusion of these amendments demonstrates once again the ongoing consultation that is accompanying this bill as it moves through the parliamentary system.
The government has consulted and listened. Many views have been expressed, some diametrically opposed to others. The overriding goal is to put in place a youth justice system that is fair and effective, and that is what Bill C-7 would do.
The substance of Bill C-7 has been open to public scrutiny for a long time. Its introduction was preceded by lengthy studies and consultation. Now is the time to move forward and replace the Young Offenders Act with the youth criminal justice act, an act that would instil values such as accountability, responsibility and respect, which are long overdue in all of our systems. This is an act that would result in the kind of youth justice system all Canadians want.