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Bernard Richard, New Brunswick's child and youth advocate, is calling the federal government's proposed youth justice changes a step backwards. ((CBC))

New Brunswick's child and youth advocate is criticizing the federal government's youth justice reforms as a step backwards.

Bernard Richard told the House of Commons standing committee on justice and human rights on Thursday that the federal government's proposed changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act would send more young people to jail.

"I think it's contradictory with the existing legislation. It's a totally different approach. I think we're going backwards, back to the Young Offenders [Act] approach, which allowed us to have an extremely high incarceration rate of youth as compared to other advanced, civilized nations and developed nations," Richard said.

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Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced in March proposed amendments to toughen up the Youth Criminal Justice Act. ((Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press))

"I think there is a contradiction there in terms and unfortunately it takes us in the wrong direction."

Richard told the Commons committee he worries the proposed changes will lead to more spending on jails.

He also told the federal politicians he's concerned that if the reforms are implemented there may be less money spent on innovative approaches to treating young people with mental health or severe behaviour disorders.

Ashley Smith comparison

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Ashley Smith, 19, died in a federal prison in October 2007. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Smith's family)

To illustrate his concerns, Richard raised the tragic case of Moncton teenager Ashley Smith, who died in an Ontario prison when she was 19 in October 2007.

Smith was sentenced to a month at the Miramichi Youth Centre in 2004. But the Moncton girl remained in custody for more than three years, racking up internal charges that kept her in the detention centre.

She eventually made it into the adult system where she ended up at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.

Smith choked herself to death in a prison cell, prompting an investigation by Richard as well Howard Sapers, the federal correctional investigator.

"During those three years, [she] spent two-thirds of her time in segregating, solitary eight by 10 cell lights on 24 hours a day," Richard told the committee.

"And if she didn't suffer from mental illness when she went in she would have when she came out and I would have as well." 

The Conservative government unveiled the proposed reforms to the Youth Criminal Justice Act in March.

The changes are intended to give judges the power to consider non-criminal behaviour when sentencing Canadians under age 18.

The proposed changes come as youth crime is on the decline in Canada. In 2006-07, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 56,463 youth court cases across Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

That represented a slight rise — 0.34 per cent — over 2005-06 but was a 26 per cent drop from 2002-2003, the year before the Youth Criminal Justice Act came into effect, when there were 76,153 youth court cases.