Youth Justice budget cuts, and other similar secrets

Last Wednesday, June 27, federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson tried to pull a fast one. During a news release to announce “continued support to youth justice services,” and specifically the Youth Justice Services Funding Program, Nicholson said that starting next spring, the Conservative government would “continue” to fund the program at $141.7 million annually.

It was welcome news. After all, the Youth Justice program is the key federal program providing services to troubled youth, and has been training youth social workers and overseeing the supervision, rehabilitation, and re-integration of young offenders since 1985. The more attention we give to young offenders, the less likely they will re-offend. It’s a solid policy for combating crime. Minister Nicholson smiled and left the room.

It was only much later that someone took a closer look and noticed that funding last year wasn’t $141.7 million, as Minister Nicholson had led on. It had been $177.3 million. Rather than “continue” to support the program, the Conservatives had actually cut the program by $35.6 million — a full 20%. In some ways the move is no surprise, given the Conservative’s penchant for punishment and their likewise contempt for talk of rehabilitation. But anyway you look at it, the cuts to youth justice services fly in the face of the Conservative’s self-described “tough on crime” approach.

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While I’m tempted to expound on the inherent common sense of rehabilitation, I’m going to assume that most of us are in agreement on this and move on to address a couple of other things.

First, the issue of democratic transparency:

Minister Nicholson’s announcement came during Parliament’s summer recess, after omnibus budgets have been passed and bureaucratic decisions have been made. So why did this particular programming cut catch everyone off-guard (Minister Nicholson’s rhetorical sleight of hand aside)? Believe it or not, the cuts to youth justice services weren’t mentioned in the budget, despite it being an unprecedented 425 pages long. And, unfortunately, the cuts to youth justice services are just one of many such details not spelled out in the budget. The Conservatives had announced $60 million in cuts to the Justice Department, but no one outside of the Conservative Party knew where those cuts would come.

It wasn’t the only giant question mark looming over the budget. Opposition MPs have been trying to get the Conservatives to make public the full details of their budget ever since it was tabled back on April 26. How can we vote on, let alone debate, a bill whose full details are kept secret from us and from the Canadian people, they asked — but to no avail. The Conservatives even brushed off the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, whose office the Conservatives created to ensure just such budgetary transparency. As the NDP tabled a contempt motion and a frustrated Page argued about breaches of democratic tradition, the Conservatives stood their ground, tight-lipped and full of secrets.

The only way to find out the full details of the budget, it would seem, is to pay attention. Very close attention.

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According to Beth Alkenbrack, a social worker in Thunder Bay: “It costs less than $10,000 a year to service a youth with me, and if they’re in a youth justice custody facility, it’s going to cost a minimum of $150,000 a year.” Ms. Alkenbrack is suggesting that cuts to Youth Justice will result in higher costs to the system as a whole. Could she be right? Are these budget cuts truly budget cuts? Or do they only look good on paper while in reality are racking up even more taxpayer dollars?

I am loath to argue about economics (it is Harper’s tactic to talk about social issues in economic terms, not mine), but I am compelled to cut through the rhetoric.

As with several so-called cost-cutting measures in the Conservative’s latest budget, these cuts are not saving costs at all. All they are doing is off-loading federal programs onto the provinces. Instead of paying for these programs through federal taxes, Canadians will simply be paying for them through provincial taxes. When all is said and done it all amounts to the same thing as far the taxpayer is concerned — except that the Conservatives get to gloat that they’re “balancing the budget.”

Again, they are trying to pull a fast one. And in the meantime, valuable expertise and valuable services are disrupted and lost.

After the cuts to youth justice services came to light, Eric Hoskins, Ontario Minister of Children and Youth Services, said that Minister Nicholson “cannot balance his department’s budget on the backs of Ontarians.” Unfortunately it seems like he can — according to Minister Nicholson’s press secretary, Julie Di Mambro: “it is up to the provinces to determine how best to allocate their resources.”

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But enough of that. More important is the question of what is to become of our high-risk youth? They should be at the forefront of our minds, not the grumblings of taxpayers. They are the ones being left behind as a result of these partisan money games.

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