Youth Criminal Justice

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): – Mr. Speaker, first of all, let me thank the member for Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont for bringing forward Bill C-423 because he has obviously put a lot of thought into the bill and there are some interesting provisions in it. I have been listening to the debate and I heard his remarks. He has been thoughtful and reflective about why this bill is coming forward and what he intends to do.

From the NDP’s point of view, we will be supporting the bill in principle. We think it should go to committee and certainly, the principle of diversion and ensuring that young people have other options than just going through the judicial system is something that is important and actually needs to be emphasized.

Looking at this bill, which would amend the Youth Criminal Justice Act, it would require a police officer, before starting judicial proceedings or taking any other measure, to consider whether it would be sufficient to refer that young person to an addiction specialist and treatment. This is something that we think is useful to do.

I want to put on the record that we do have some reservations. I am the drug policy spokesperson for the NDP. I probably am in that position because it is an issue that I deal with very frequently in my riding where we have a crisis of HIV-AIDS among injection drug users. We have a very high rate of conversion to HIV-AIDS. We have a crisis among injection drug users.

One of the things that really bothers me, and I want to point this out to the member because there is a bit of a philosophical difference, is that we always use the lens or the tool of the judicial system to deal with these interventions.

For example, in Vancouver we have had the drug court and that has been widely accepted by a lot of people. I actually do not support the drug court because why do we actually wait until someone is at the point of making the decision that they are going to go to jail or to treatment. Why would we make the intervention so late? Why would we wait until they have been charged and at the point of maybe being convicted to provide that as an alternative. It becomes almost a coercive kind of thing.

I do have to say to the member that while in principle this can work, I do have some reservations about it because it is using the criminal justice model to make the intervention. We need to be aware that primarily, when we are dealing with substance use, particularly for young people, we are dealing with a health issue. We should be focusing our intervention, our public policies, the treatment, the community development and the prevention from that point of view.

My question would be this. Why would we wait until that point that an officer then has to make that decision and say is it better that this young person go to a treatment program, which obviously it would? At that point I would say yes, that is the preferable course of action, but why would we wait until that point?

When I look at the Conservatives’ drug policy or what we expect it to be and I have looked at the 2007 budget, it appears to us that basically they dropped harm reduction. I know there is a lot of concern out in the community about where the Conservatives’ drug strategy is going to go.

The member needs to understand that the deep concern that people have is this reliance on the justice system as opposed to recognizing that we need an intervention that is a health based intervention. We need prevention programs.

It seems to me in terms of where the dollars go, and again there are concerns about the fact that prevention and treatment have been completely inadequately funded in this country, why again would we wait until we get to that point of it becoming a criminal justice issue and making that intervention?

I heard the member speak about the DARE program. I have the same problem with the DARE program. Why would we have police officers going into schools attempting to educate young people about drug use? Would we have officers going to schools for sex education? I do not think so. The only reason we do it is because drugs are illegal. They are deemed to be harmful and illegal in our society.

I have to tell the member, I deal with this issue so much. I have honestly come to the conclusion that some of these prohibitionist policies themselves have become more harmful than anything else in terms of criminalizing young people, criminalizing adults, criminalizing users, and sort of waiting until we get to this point where it becomes a justice issue.

So, while on the one hand I do appreciate what the member is doing, and we will support it in principle, I do want to put on the table this other viewpoint. It worries me, frankly, where it is that the Conservatives are going overall, not with just this bill but when we package them all up.

We understand that there are going to be a number of new bills coming forward regarding the Conservative drug strategy and I can tell members I am really worried about where it is heading because it becomes this sort of political agenda.

To me it is the oldest game in the book to play this sort of politics of fear because people are concerned about drug use. Parents are terribly concerned about what happens to young people. However, I think if we talk to most parents, they do not want their kids becoming criminals. They want to see an early intervention in the schools in a way that is realistic, in a way that is honest.

I can tell members that when we make it kind of a law and order message, even in the schools, where the kids are told, and I have heard cops say this, “If you smoke marijuana, you’re going to become a cocaine addict”, they know it is not true. That is like saying that everybody who drives a car is going to kill somebody.

There are some different approaches and I actually hope the member would be open to some dialogue and some responses around this because it is genuinely given here tonight in this debate.

This bill in and of itself at that point where a young person is faced with a criminal charge or treatment, I would agree, it is a better choice to get them to treatment. But let us back up. Let us really back it up to where we need to do the work. That is why I have a lot of concerns about things like the DARE program and drug courts. We need early intervention. We need it on the street.

I see the drug users in the downtown east side of my riding. They actually need what we call low threshold interventions where the bar is not so high that they are not going to fail because unfortunately a lot of the programs that we have are based on that.

The same is true for young people. Even the treatment regimes that we have in this country, if we talk to drug users, they will tell us that they are often not very accessible. Again, the rules can become so stringent that people are almost sort of designed for failure before they even can get in the program or get through the program.

I really do want to get this point across, that we need to have a different perspective. We need to have a health perspective and we need to recognize that the use of the judicial system, the use of the police in terms of education and the use of enforcement has been shown to be quite a failure.

We only have to look south of the border to see what has happened in the United States, the massive incarceration of young people, particularly African Americans. I think something like 50% of all incarcerations or more are now related to drug use. This so-called war on drugs is a completely failed model. I know that the member is not precisely advocating that, but because it is still focusing on the justice system, it becomes part of that sort of perspective and view.

I hope that my comments have been helpful. They are presented in that way in order to offer some feedback and some different perspectives to this bill. Nevertheless, we will support it in principle to send it to committee. Then I hope at committee, if it ever does come up for debate, we can hear from some witnesses and actually look at some ways to improve this bill. Certainly, I would be very interested to do that from the point of view of the NDP.