A dramatic drop in the number of Manitoba youth who are being held in custody while they are legally innocent puts the province more in line with a national trend toward avoiding jail for those under 18, recent data show.
But progress has been slower than in some other provinces. Manitoba still has the highest youth incarceration rate in the country, and half of youth in custody haven't been convicted.
There has been a 60 per cent decrease in the number of Manitoba youths on remand over the past five years, provincial statistics show. That number was 162 at the end of 2014, and it dropped to 64 by the end of last year. The province recently released the statistics as part of its Criminal Justice Modernization Strategy.
Manitoba Justice couldn't pinpoint specific reasons for the decline, which has been happening for decades in other parts of the country, and didn't make anyone available for an interview. The Winnipeg Police Service also declined to comment.
"There are a number of factors that can affect the number of youth in custody, and it is often difficult to isolate which is having the greatest effect. Decisions by police to arrest, activity in the community, decisions by the Crown and the court, and initiatives such as restorative justice all have a role," a justice department spokeswoman said in a statement.
Being held in custody on remand means the youth (ages 12 to 18) are waiting for their court cases to conclude and haven't been convicted. Fifty per cent of the youth who were in jail in Manitoba in 2018 were on remand in pretrial custody, compared with 58 per cent of adults in custody.
The decline is significant and happened relatively quickly, says University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob, who has been studying Canada's youth criminal justice system for 44 years. He noted proportions of youth in pretrial custody in Alberta, B.C., and Ontario hover around 70 per cent, but those provinces jail much lower rates of youth to begin with. Still, Doob described the decreases in Manitoba, and across the country in general, as "impressive."
"Think about the number of people who have to change their decision-making process for that to happen. We saw that most dramatically across the country between 2002 and 2003, when the (Youth Criminal Justice Act came into effect)," he said.
"When we start looking at what we do with kids, and we look carefully and decide whether this (incarceration) is the best thing, then it's something that government policy can change. And it changes pretty quickly."
Doob, along with fellow researchers Cheryl Marie Webster and Jane B. Sprott, looked into Canada's efforts to reduce youth imprisonment as far back as 1914. They found fewer youth crimes are being reported to police, and police are generally laying fewer charges against youth in Canada. The way courts handle youth cases have also played a role in reducing incarceration, the researchers found, with an increasing number of cases being thrown out of court or non-jail sentences imposed.
Their research is soon to be published in an academic journal, but it makes clear "more thorough study is needed" when it comes to high rates of pretrial custody, particularly for Indigenous people, as well as comparisons between different parts of the country. Ontario, for example, saw a 79 per cent drop in the number of youth sentenced to custody between 2004 and 2017. Manitoba's decline was only 22 per cent during the same time period.
As of Thursday, both of Manitoba's youth jails were operating well under capacity, with 62 in Agassiz Youth Centre and 73 in the Manitoba Youth Centre. The jails are meant to hold a maximum of 128 and 150, respectively.
Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth, as well as the province's independent ombudsman's office, have raised concerns about conditions within Manitoba youth jails. Earlier this year, they raised alarm about high rates of segregation and pepper-spray use among incarcerated youth after a two-year investigation.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.