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Youth Criminal Justice?

by Francine Thompson

in light of the recent violent incidents that have been occurring in among Canadian youth, especially after the Columbine massacre, it is interesting to look at the new Youth Criminal Justice Act which replaced the Young Offenders Act in March 1999. According to Anne McLellan, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, "Canadians want a youth justice system that protects society and instills values such as accountability, responsibility and respect... They want governments to help prevent youth crime in the first place and make sure there are meaningful consequences when it occurs. The new Youth Criminal Justice Act is designed to help achieve these goals." Are they really? The Youth Criminal Justice Act includes provisions that:

  • allow an adult sentence for any youth 14 years old or more who is convicted of an offence punishable by more than two years in jail, if the Crown applies and the court finds it appropriate in the circumstances;
  • expand the offences for which a young person convicted of an offence would be presumed to receive an adult sentence from murder, attempted murder, manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault to include a new category of a pattern of serious violent offences;
  • lower the age for youth who are presumed to receive an adult sentence for the above offences to include 14- and 15-year-olds;
  • permit the publication of names of all youth who receive an adult sentence. Publication of the names of 14- to 17-year-olds who receive a youth sentence for murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, aggravated sexual assault or repeat serious violent offences will also be permitted;
  • allow the Crown greater discretion in seeking adult sentences and publication of offenders’ names;
  • create a special sentence for serious violent offenders who suffer from mental illness, psychological disorder or emotional disturbance that will include an individualized plan for custodial treatment and intensive control and supervision;
  • promote a constructive role for victims and communities, including ensuring they receive the information they need and have opportunities to be involved in the youth justice system;
  • give the courts more discretion to receive as evidence voluntary statements by youth to police;
  • require all periods of custody to be followed by a period of controlled supervision in the community to support safe and effective reintegration;
  • permit tougher penalties for adults who wilfully fail to comply with an undertaking made to the court to properly supervise youth who have been denied bail and placed in their care. This responds to a proposal made by Chuck Cadman, M.P. (Surrey North) in a private member’s bill;
  • permit the provinces to require young people or their parents to pay for their legal counsel in cases where they are fully capable of paying;
  • allow for and encourage the use of a full range of community-based sentences and effective alternatives to the justice system for youth who commit non-violent offences; and
  • recognize the principles of the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is a signatory.
"Minister of Justice Introduces New Youth
Justice Law" from Department of Justice

It seems as though these provisions are trying to promote "prevention" of youth through scare tactics (ie: harsher sentences and getting names published)

It seems as though these provisions are trying to promote "prevention" of youth through scare tactics (ie: harsher sentences and getting names published). Now is this the way to prevent crimes? We have to remember that all in all these are children that we are talking about. We don't give them many responsibilities in the first place, so why should we just expect them to gain this responsibility because of new laws. The justice system has to focus their attention on finding out why kids break laws in the first place and work from there. We have to treat our children with more respect. They deserve responsibilities in order to become mature functioning members of society.

Another problem is with the publication of the names of young offenders. The function of this may be as a scare tactic, again, but the results of this can stigmatize the youths as "criminals." This labelling does little to encourage youth to change their ways once they are labelled.

Positive aspects of this act are that young offenders are given a period of heavily controlled supervision into the community. Hopefully this controlled supervision will include counselling and guidance by appropriate adult role models. The Youth Justice Strategy, in general, was given $206 million over the next three years to "support provincial and territorial efforts to meet the objectives of the Strategy and to provide greater stability and equity in federal funding." One must not be overly hopeful that this money will go to prevention and reintegration, rather than towards building new facilities to hold new offenders.

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