Sask. youth crime crackdown will backfire, says gang expert

Harsher sentences will not decrease youth crime, says the founder of a program that's helped more than 450 young people leave gangs.

Tackling poverty, racism and addiction the only solution: Fr. André Poilièvre

Catholic priest Fr. André Poilièvre is founder of Str8 Up, which has helped more than 400 people leave gangs. He says the research and his own experience show harsher penalties for youth crime don't work. (CBC News)

Harsher sentences will not decrease youth crime, says the founder of a Saskatoon-based program that has helped more than 450 young people leave gangs.

On Tuesday, the provincial government released its report on crime after speaking with rural residents and others. One key recommendation calls for "increased consequences for crimes committed by young offenders."

Catholic priest André Poilièvre, founder of Str8 Up, says there's no evidence a crackdown would decrease crime.

"It just won't work," Poilièvre said. "Suppression won't work. What you need is intervention."

Poilièvre, who has decades of experience with street gangs and inmates, said the young person's loneliness and pain must be addressed. Focus on poverty, housing, racism and other societal issues rather than the length of sentences, he said.

"What is the cause that brings these young people to think that they're going to find recognition and meaning in their lives by joining a gang? It's not by more punishment," Poilièvre said.

He sympathizes with those who have been victimized, but the perception of a youth crime wave is incorrect. Youth crime severity in Saskatchewan is actually down by 30 per cent in the past decade, according to Statistics Canada.

Minister said rural residents wanted stronger response

Justice Minister Gordon Wyant said getting at the root cause of crime is important. The report contains several other recommendations to work with First Nations and other groups on these issues.

However, Wyant said rural residents told them youth crime needs a stronger response. They told the committee "the system's not strict enough. People ... aren't suffering the consequences, not accepting responsibility for the actions," Wyant said.

Justice Minister Gordon Wyant says it's unclear whether harsher consequences will curb youth crime, but says that's what many people around the province want to see. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

Wyant was asked whether government policy should be based on people's perceptions, rather than facts and evidence. He said evidence is important, but "in a lot of ways, perception is reality to people."

Wyant admitted he's not sure whether harsher consequences will decrease youth crime.

"Well, I don't have any information on whether or not they do or whether they don't. The fact of the matter is there are some very, very serious crimes being committed in this province, and people need to be responsible for those," Wyant said.

The provincial government is working on a separate gang strategy with Str8 Up and other groups. Wyant said he'll be meeting with his provincial and federal counterparts in September to discuss further solutions.

About the Author

Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.