OTTAWA -- The number of young people in jail dropped by half in the year after the new Youth Criminal Justice Act came into effect and experts say that shows the law is working.
Statistics Canada says that in the year after the new law replaced the Young Offenders Act in April 2003 the number of 12-to 17-year-olds admitted into some form of custody declined sharply.
There were about 17,100 admissions to youth custody during the fiscal year 2003-04, well below the 22,700 admissions in the previous year, the agency said in a release Tuesday.
Of those, 4,700 were ultimately sentenced to custody, a 44 per cent decline.
On average, 1,340 young persons were in sentenced custody on any given day in Canada in 2003-04, including 720 in secure custody and 620 in open custody.
In contrast, during the previous fiscal year, about 2,720 young persons, on average, were in sentenced custody on any given day, 1,260 in secure custody and 1,460 in open custody.
A key objective of the Youth Criminal Justice Act was to keep young offenders out of jail except for the worst, most violent offenders or habitual reoffenders.
"The (new act) raises the standard of young people being placed in custody," said Paul Whitehead, a social science professor at the University of Western Ontario. "It is to happen in the most serious cases only."
He said the idea is to divert young people early into community programs aimed at steering them away from crime. Jail is a last resort.
Bryan Hogeveen, a sociologist at the University of Alberta, said the federal Justice Department spent much time and money before the new act became law educating police, lawyers and judges on how it was supposed to work.
That effort has paid off, he said.
Ray Corrado, a Simon Fraser University criminologist, was a critic of the act to begin with. He thought it too complex and unwieldy.
"The law has worked," he said. "Even for a critic like me, I acknowledge that it has (worked) and it's actually quite encouraging."
Corrado said the public may not like the idea of fewer jail sentences, but he said there's a gap between public perception of youth crime and the actual statistics.
"The perception is wrong. I've heard no deep complaints about the law from the police or anybody, really, within the system, but the public still tends to get upset."
Justice Minister Vic Toews isn't impressed with the new statistics.
"Simply because fewer people are being incarcerated doesn't mean that the system is working," he said.
"In fact, I remain very concerned about the Youth Criminal Justice Act, that in fact it is not working appropriately. The present act does not have proper accountability and responsibility for those under the Act."
He said the Tories remain committed to campaign promises to toughen the law but would not say when legislation might be introduced.