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Rights groups angered by closing of girls' jails

Jan 21 2012

Legal and civil rights advocates have joined forces against a B.C. government decision to close two jail units for girls in Victoria and Prince George.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund and Justice for Girls want a review of the plan to house all female young offenders at the Burnaby youth custody centre.

"Separating girls from their families and communities is bad policy and will be especially damaging to girls from isolated and remote parts of the province," Laura Track, legal director of West Coast LEAF, said in a statement Friday.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development has said the move will save $2.5 million and stems, in part, 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.

The targeted units are operating at under capacity with fewer than five girls in the eight-bed unit in Victoria on average and just two in the six-bed Prince George facility.

Children's Minister Mary McNeil said some of the money saved by the move will be reinvested in improved treatment programs for female young offenders.

The ministry also has set aside money for a family visiting program that will allow offenders to see their families by video-conferencing, or in some cases, will help pay for relatives to travel to and from Burnaby.

But Annabel Webb, director of Justice for Girls, said in a prepared statement that the decision is "an outrageous violation of children's human rights" and will face a constitutional challenge.

David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said in the same statement that the decision discriminates against girls, while allowing male offenders to remain in regional centres.

The advocacy groups want B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to review the plan. Turpel-Lafond criticized the decision earlier this week because it will separate girls from their families, and require that vulnerable youth be kept in adult police cells until they are transported to Burnaby.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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