Sewell: City spends lots on police, not much on youth

By John Sewell –

One of the wisest and most perceptive reports on a pressing public policy issue the city is facing was released {in 2008}: Roots of Youth Violence, by former Chief Justice Roy McMurtry and former legislative Speaker Alvin Curling. The media generally focused on one controversial section of the report, asking for race-based data to be collected, but there’s much in the report that stands apart from that proposal and deserves careful attention.

Of course, inherent reasonableness and wisdom does not mean the report will be paid any attention to by government, even if traditional approaches to youth violence in Toronto are not effective.

There’s the rub: the report requires changes in direction, and most public bodies react negatively to statements that they embody (as this report says) “a lack of strategic thinking.”

Here’s the way the report sums up the problem that we all know about youth violence:

“It takes a certain desperation for a young person to walk our streets with a gun. The sense of nothing to lose and no way out that roils within such youth create an ever-present danger. That danger arises from the impulsiveness of youth and the lack of foresight with which they often act.”

That’s what we have learned and fear from the death of Jane Creba, killed while shopping on Yonge Street.

Poverty, the report notes, does not cause violent crime, nor does race: “race has nothing to do with violence.”  Racism, of course, is a big issue, and the report says that “poverty is racialized and ghettoized and associated with violence” and then the “potential for stigmatization of specific groups is high.”

Problems are complex and it is the complexities which need to be addressed.

They all require structural reform: repairing the social context with programs which are created for youth; creating a youth policy framework to replace the patchwork of programs now available, of which two thirds are without any means of assessing whether they are successful at what they are supposed to do; creating strong communities out of weak suburban subdivisions and housing projects; and finding ways that government can actually exercise its oversight functions.

One small section of the report looks at the way public funds are spent by the Ontario government on justice services to youth in trouble.

Total spending is about $850 million a year, of which $75 million is spent on court services; $200 million on custody and probation; $75 million on alternative court outcomes such as diversion and community programs; and $500 million on policing. (Special spending toward African Canadian youth amounts to under $1 million.)

Clearly, putting the lion’s share of the money, as we now do, into police services, is not effective, and it means that money spent there is not available elsewhere.

The report says that police/youth interactions are characterized by “undue aggressiveness” and that there is an over-criminalization of incidents.

The sums noted above represent spending at the provincial level. Toronto city council itself spends $800 million a year on police, of which perhaps $100 million is directed to policing youth. That’s virtually the only money the city spends on the problem of youth violence, which demonstrates the need for new priorities. It also raises the difficulty of convincing the police to give up some of their allocations for other services.

For instance, Toronto police have placed 30 officers in Toronto schools with the idea that this will begin to deal with youth violence. Putting an officer on the street costs about $100,000 a year, so this one program costs $3 million a year. Is it successful? Unfortunately, no methods of assessing success were set for the program before it was implemented so we don’t know when or if it will be effective.

Like many provincial programs, it seems to have started out before there was much deep thinking.

Roots of Youth Violence is a report that fills one with hope.

It is in knowing there are people who understand, and that the solutions are there if we have the courage to take them to make a better city.