'Throw the key away': Experts weigh in on how to spend B.C.'s anti-gang dollars

With anti-gun and anti-gang funding on the way for the provinces and territories, municipalities like Surrey look ahead to how they want the dollars spent.

Funding is on the way for B.C. municipalities; advocates want 'broken' justice system fixed

With millions of dollars destined for anti-gang and anti-gun violence strategies in B.C., concerns are starting to mount over how the money will be spent. (Shane Mackichan)

Millions of dollars are on the way to help B.C. grapple with organized crime, and cities at the forefront of gang violence say the money can't come soon enough.

The City of Surrey is in the midst of developing an anti-gang violence strategy that will be unveiled this spring — and the federal funding should come just in time to put plans into action. More than $300 million will be divided between the provinces and territories.

"That report will be coming out just as decisions are made about how this federal funding will be utilized," said Terry Waterhouse, the city's director of public safety. "We'll be working to match up our resource needs with that funding."

Waterhouse was one of many stakeholders at a summit in Ottawa where experts agreed that a recent surge in gang violence is deeply troubling.

Surrey's violent crime rate has remained largely unchanged over the past 10 years, according to statistics from the RCMP. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

A regional problem

He says municipalities in Metro Vancouver need to work in unison to tackle the problem.

"The violence can happen in any different community — but it's all of the same players. They might live in one part of the region, but they travel to another part to do their business," he said.

"At any given time, any part of the region can be impacted by people that are moving swiftly to move their drugs — and with that, their violence."

The province will ultimately decide where the federal funding ends up, but Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth promised areas in need will get their fair share.

He says the province is also clamping down on illegal firearms and mid-level drug dealers, while beefing up popular anti-gang programs.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Premier John Horgan work out with students at Princess Margaret Secondary School in Surrey following an anti-gang funding announcement. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

A 'comprehensive approach'

But not everyone agrees that throwing money at young offender programs and law enforcement is effective.

Kash Heed, B.C.'s former solicitor general and former head of the VPD's gang task force, points to years of similar efforts that have yet to yield concrete results.

"These are just one-off strategies that are not going to deal with the violence," he said.

Heed says there needs to be a more comprehensive approach — one that revitalizes B.C.'s criminal justice system and intervenes with youth long before they make negative, life-changing decisions.

"There are going to be gang members that are out there right now that are so entrenched in this lifestyle, they're a lost generation," he said. "The only way we're going to deal with them is to put them in jail and throw the key away."

Kash Heed, former B.C. solicitor general, has concerns that B.C.'s funding to quell gang violence won't be spent wisely. (CBC)

Young offenders

Simon Fraser University assistant professor Evan McCuish is directing one of the the country's largest ongoing studies examining how young offenders end up in the justice system.

"It's quite problematic," said McCuish, adding that minor assaults and thefts among children tend to be stepping stones. "We need some type of service program for these particularly young kids who can't be dealt with through the formal justice system."

McCuish says intervention programs that target kids as young as eight years old who exhibit anti-social or aggressive behaviour have proven effective in helping them control negative emotions that could lead to crime, but few of those programs are offered in the Lower Mainland.

Eileen Mohan's 22-year-old son Chris was killed along with five other people at a Surrey highrise in 2007. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A mother's concern

Eileen Mohan, mother of Surrey Six murder victim Christopher Mohan, says B.C.'s "broken" justice system should be the province's top funding priority.

"A house needs to have a strong foundation to deter these types of crimes," she said. "If we don't have a deterrent, these crimes will occur over and over again."

Earlier this week, B.C.'s justice system received a failing grade on a report card issued by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank.

The group found that half of B.C.'s violent crimes go unsolved.

"These same people are revolved and revolved into the system," said Mohan. "These gangsters walked to the doorstep of my home, took my innocent son's life, and walked away thinking they won't be caught."