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Girls' jail units in Victoria and Prince George close as inmate count falls

Jan 19 2012

The declining number of young people in B.C. jails has prompted the government to close two units for girls in Victoria and Prince George.

All female young offenders will soon be held at the Burnaby youth custody centre.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development, which oversees youth corrections, said the move will eliminate 23 jobs and save $2.5 million.

Children's Minister Mary McNeil said the move stems from the fact that B.C. has one of the lowest youth incarceration rates in the country. The number of youth in jail has fallen 75 per cent from a high of 400 in 1996 to a current average of 105.

On average, fewer than five girls were in custody at the eight-bed unit in Victoria and just two in the six-bed Prince George facility. The 16-bed Burnaby unit holds nine female offenders on average.

By centralizing services, McNeil said, $900,000 will be re-invested in youth justice programs, including those that help female young offenders deal with addictions or trauma. The remainder of the savings will be shifted to programs for special needs children within the ministry.

"I thnk it's going to make a huge difference for these kids," she said.

B.C.'s representative for children and youth criticized the ministry, saying it is trying to save money at the expense of troubled youth. "It's efficient if you're processing groceries," said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. "It's not efficient when you're dealing with social challenges around the lives of particularly vulnerable people." She said she has concerns about transferring young girls, many of them aboriginal, to Burnaby, where they will be released from custody just a short distance from the Downtown Eastside.

She also questioned how they will be able to maintain contact with family. "I can't see the grandma from Burns Lake easily being able to make the trip to Burnaby to see the grandchild," she said.

She noted that young girls will now be held in adult police cells in Victoria and Prince George until they can be transferred to Burnaby.

The ministry says it has set money aside for a visiting program and plans to use video-conferencing to allow young offenders to see their families. In some cases, the ministry will help pay for trips to Burnaby. In addition, female sheriff escorts will speed the transportation of girls to Burnaby from courts in outlying areas, the ministry said.

The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, which represents corrections workers, reacted angrily to the announcement. "To blindside us with this, while we're at the bargaining table with the government, is unacceptable," said union spokesman Dean Purdy.

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver, which advocates for women and girls in the justice system, backed the move. Shawn Bayes, executive director, said in a statement: "While centralized female youth custody will be farther away for many, we believe it will also promote the use of alternatives to custody and decrease the number of girls sent to custody, which we welcome."

lkines@timescolonist.com

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