The decision to close a youth detention centre in Victoria could spell legal trouble for the provincial government, says one expert.

Last week, plans were announced to shutter the Victoria Youth Custody Centre and transfer inmates to facilities in Burnaby and Prince George. As a result of the closure, youth on pre-court detention, short periods of remand or serving short sentences will be housed in police lock-ups.

That could be against the law and maybe even a violation of habeas corpus, said Nicholas Bala, a professor of law at Queen’s University.

“I suspect someone could challenge it,” he said. “It’s a clear violation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.”

According to Bala, the act requires youth to be housed separately from adults in terms of both “sight and sound.” Both the Saanich and Victoria police have cells reserved for youth in their stations, but neither facility is soundproof.

Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux maintains that reduced youth incarceration rates mean the Victoria facility is no longer cost-effective. The jail has 60 beds, but houses an average of only 15 youth.

Closing the centre will save an estimated $400,000 a month, Cadieux said.

“All jurisdictions in Canada, including B.C., have the same challenges regarding the holding of youth offenders in police lock-up facilities for short sentences or before they can be transported to areas with youth specific facilities for longer term sentences,” said a ministry spokesperson. “We look forward to working with police in Victoria to ensure that we develop an agreement that works for the youth and our partners.”

Victoria police Chief Frank Elsner has publicly decried the government’s decision and suggested the VicPD may refuse to house young inmates. Elsner declined Metro’s request for an interview Monday.

While it is not uncommon for youth to be detained briefly alongside adults — it is allowed in instances where no other option is available — Bala said such cases should remain exceptions rather than the rule.

Youth detained alongside adults are more likely to be recruited into a gang or experience sexual assault, Bala said.

“It can be a very intimidating environment, especially for young people who have just been arrested for the first time,” he said. “It’s also one of the situations where young people are particularly vulnerable to suicide.”

Bala also questioned the government’s move to centralize young offenders into “large, mega-facilities,” citing research showing youth fare better in smaller prisons closer to their communities.

“The larger the facility and the further it is away from home, the lower the likelihood of rehabilitation,” he said.

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