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Last Thursday, the hallways of the Prince Edward Island Youth Centre were quiet. Nearly all the 16 beds sat untouched.

Just one person was confined to the brick walls of the correctional centre, which sits on a pristine lawn just down the road from the hockey rink in Summerside.

The building, with its pale green roof and looming concrete fences, costs $2.86 million a year to run.

Four years ago, the Prince Edward Island Youth Centre gave up half of the correctional centre to Health PEI to try to better utilize the empty space. (CBC)

Earlier that week, it was empty except for the staff. For the entire 2018-19 fiscal year, only 17 people in the province were admitted to the youth jail, compared to 70 five years ago.

This pattern is repeated across Atlantic Canada.

During the first week of July, according to a survey by CBC News, there were fewer than 30 inmates in the region’s four long-term youth jails — secure facilities built to hold 10 times that number.

As youth correctional centres across Atlantic Canada continue to see a dramatic decline in numbers, the provinces are left with expensive and largely empty buildings.

Move to smaller spaces, says advocate

At least one advocate says it’s time to move away from the “super jail” model for youth in favour of smaller, scattered, secure spaces.

“You can look across Canada and into the United States and I know you will find the model of youth correctional facilities that are in the communities,” said Norman Bossé, New Brunswick’s child and youth advocate.

“If a youth commits a murder, well, you have to deal with that.… But that can be done without having a large facility like we have here and in other provinces.”

Norman Bossé, New Brunswick’s child and youth advocate, says he would like to see several smaller secure facilities set up across the province for young offenders as opposed to the ‘super jail’ in Miramichi. (CBC)

But everyone agrees the empty space issue is a good problem.

“It’s fantastic news,” said Karen MacDonald, director of community and correctional services with P.E.I.’s Department of Justice and Public Safety.

MacDonald says they don’t want to see young people in a custodial facility.

“Everything we do is designed to keep people in their homes, in their communities and on a path that means they’re going to be healthy, productive citizens.”

Decline in numbers began in 2003

A few decades ago, these facilities were full, even overcrowded. The decline in numbers began slowly back in 2003, when the Youth Criminal Justice Act came into force.

The Act instructed the courts to consider every reasonable alternative to a custodial sentence before putting a young person in jail.

A young person has to meet certain criteria to get jail time. Those criteria include committing a violent crime, committing a crime that would result in a sentence of more than two years for an adult, or if the youth did not follow other sentences in the community and continued to reoffend.

This chart shows the average daily number of inmates in each of Atlantic Canada’s four youth correctional centres, along with the number of inmates on July 8 when surveyed by CBC News. (CBC)

Across Atlantic Canada, the average number of daily inmates shows a downward trend over the past five years.

These days, young people are instead seeing more restorative justice sentences — but they’re also committing fewer crimes.

A 2014 report by Statistics Canada says between 2000 and 2014, the youth crime rate dropped by 42 per cent.

The report also says there was a “notable, although more gradual, decline” in the numbers of youth sentenced to custody.

“Often when you send a young person to jail, they end up learning to be better criminals,” said Megan Longley, executive director at Nova Scotia Legal Aid.

Longley and others say removing youths from their homes, peer groups and schools is detrimental.

“Remaining in the community and remaining in school is one of the most important things we can do for these young people,” said Bossé.

“If they don’t get their education, man, they are up against a tough, tough world.”

Declining youth population may be factor

In the Atlantic region in particular, the dwindling youth population as a whole may be having an impact.

But the main reason youths end up before the courts hasn’t gone away.

Bossé said many of them charged with criminal offences have mental illnesses, which is often what causes them to offend.

“Then we put them in jail, which is likely the last place they should be,” he said.

Brandon Rolle, managing lawyer of the Halifax Legal Aid Youth Office, says more youth court cases are being diverted from the system in favour of restorative justice. (CBC)

Brandon Rolle, managing lawyer of the Halifax Legal Aid Youth Office, said many cases are now being diverted away from the court system at the outset, such as police opting not to lay a charge and using restorative justice instead.

“When we’re talking about the files that actually get custodial sentences, it’s a very small amount,” Rolle said.

What to do with the space?

The dwindling numbers have meant a steady decline in staffing levels at the facilities. For example, the number of employees at the youth centre in Waterville, N.S., went from 145 to 52 over five years.

“There has been a gradual reduction in staff through attrition when we realized there was not a requirement to replace those individuals,” said Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey.

“But we’ve also taken resources, the positions that would have been at the facility, and placed them in communities around the province.”

Mark Furey, Nova Scotia’s justice minister, says Waterville was overcapacity with 126 residents in 1996. (CBC)

That alone doesn’t solve the biggest problem — what to do with all that empty space?

“That’s the $5-million question,” said N.L. Justice Minister Andrew Parsons, using the number it costs to run the Whitbourne youth centre each year.

“When you look at the cost to run the youth side of it, then you look at the number of youth that are being held, it is astonishing really.”

Nova Scotia’s centre costs the most to run at $9 million each year, while New Brunswick’s costs less than $4 million.

Parsons said he recognizes the facility can’t be eliminated entirely, but the space issue is on his radar. He said he has been preoccupied with other prison space concerns in the province, just four months after pledging a $200-million replacement for Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

Bars can be seen on the windows of the Nova Scotia Youth Facility in Waterville. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

To try to make the most of the space in Waterville, seven years ago the Nova Scotia government relocated the IWK Secure Care Unit from the hospital in Halifax to the correctional centre.

The three-bed unit, which is kept separate, is used for youth receiving court-ordered assessments, those found unfit to stand trial or found not criminally responsible.

N.B. splits centre between youth, women

At the New Brunswick Youth Centre in Miramichi, the building has been divided. There are 10 youths on one side, while incarcerated adult women have moved in on the other half.

But while the province says there’s no safety concerns with this, Bossé wants to see the youths moved out of the shared building.

“It’s very clear under the Youth Criminal Justice Act you are not allowed to incarcerate youth with adult detainees. Period. It doesn’t matter why, it just it shouldn’t be done,” he said.

Advocates do not think a consolidated Maritime youth centre would be a good idea, because it takes youths even farther from their home communities.

Before the P.E.I. centre was built in 1988, youths from the island would be sent to Nova Scotia. It’s not something either province wants to repeat.

With the lowest inmate numbers, P.E.I. decided to take direct action four years ago.

It split up the 32-bed facility and gave half to Health PEI, where it set up an in-patient, residential treatment program for young people dealing with substance abuse.

Karen MacDonald, P.E.I. Community and Correctional Services director, says it’s fantastic to see so few youth at the centre. (CBC)

“It was underutilized.… And the health system needed a space,” said MacDonald. “It was a bit of a perfect marriage.”

Since the youth corrections facility opened in P.E.I. it has allowed community groups to rent out the gymnasium and boardroom at no charge.

“So that’s really the motivation around wanting people to know it’s not a terrible place, it’s not a scary place,” MacDonald said.

“These are young Islanders…They are perhaps struggling, but they’re still part of the community.”

But filling up some of that space hasn’t solved every problem caused by fewer inmates.

While MacDonald said it’s rare to have long stretches without any young people in custody, it happens — and the province still has to fully staff the centre.

“We want to ensure that they have lots to fill those days.” She said staff members use that time to write policies, support community-based staff and update program curriculum.

No clear answers

For the rest of Atlantic Canada, there’s no clear answer for what to do next.

Rolle, with the Halifax Legal Aid Youth Office, said he would like to see the province make use of the extra space by helping youths who are transitioning out of Waterville, or youths in care who need a form of independent living.

The New Brunswick’s public safety minister said a “complete review” of the corrections facilities in the province is underway, but it’s in the early stages.

“I know before next budget time, there will be decisions made to get us moving forward,” Carl Urquhart said. “There should be changes made.”

But Longley said the continued downward trend shows locking up young people wasn’t helping to prevent youth crime.

“Dealing with root causes, rather than focusing on punishment, is a much better way to protect the public, ensure people stay out of the criminal justice system in the future.”

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