The Conservative government is coming under fire for cutting back on funding used to rehabilitate young criminals and keep at-risk youth out of jail.
Shane Picken, agency director for ARC Programs, which provides juvenile justice services in Kamloops, Kelowna and the Kootenays, was baffled by the news that 20 per cent of federal funding for youth justice programs in Canada has been slashed.
"The Harper government's all about getting tough on crime and justice for our citizens and they're going to cut youth justice funding?" said Picken. "It doesn't make sense because if you intervene early with youth you can prevent all those crimes."
The funding is a key federal initiative that has transferred money to provinces and territories to deliver services to troubled youth since the original Young Offenders Act was passed in 1985.
More than $35 million was cut to the federal Youth Justice Fund, which has three components: a main fund, drug treatment and a guns-gangs-and-drugs component.
"That's all the province needs at this time," said Picken. "They're really suffering revenue-wise and what a place to cut."
Funds were used to target violent young offenders, to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth in trouble with the law, to deal with less serious types of offences outside the formal court process.
It also funded pilot projects, helped train justice professionals and youth service providers and paid for research on the youth justice system.
The programs have been instrumental in reducing the number of incarcerated youth, said Picken.
"About nine years ago the custody rate in our province has just plummeted. I think they used to have 700 kids at any given time, now they're down to 100 or 200."
Federal government payments now total $141 million to B.C., and it remains to be seen how the province will deal with the cuts, according to Mary McNeil, minister of children and family development.
"We're in the process of reviewing the implications of the federal government's announcement and it's still too early to say what the impacts might be," she said.
The changes take effect in the 2013-14 fiscal year, giving the province adequate time to plan ahead, said McNeil.
The province has already made unpopular youth justice cuts recently such as last year's closure of a female young offenders custody centre in Prince George, which caused inmates to be transferred to Burnaby hundreds of kilometres away from the girls' communities.
But other cost-sharing agreements will still cover youth probationary services, community-based rehabilitation and treatment programs and aboriginal justice strategies, said Kamloops-Thompson MP Cathy McLeod.
"There's a whole host of programs focused on this issue."
McLeod said Justice Canada needed to find places to cut costs to balance its budget.
"Like every department, (Justice Canada) had to look at making some adjustments to what they were doing."
But the federal government's notion that cutting back on transfer payments will reduce federal costs is wrongheaded, said Francis Scarpaleggia, Canada's Liberal Public Safety.
"Programs that keep at-risk youth out of gangs and on the straight and narrow cost just $10,000 per person annually, yet this government would rather waste more than $110,000 per person per year to lock them up, increasing the likelihood that young offenders turn into life-long hardened criminals."