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Stories about young people and guns have become so commonplace in our city that it is almost difficult to find them shocking any more. In the latest incident, three people were shot at a house party in Scarborough. A seventeen-year-old boy was killed. The suspect is a fourteen-year-old boy who turned himself into police after they received special dispensation to release his name and picture to the public.
Just a few days before the shooting, CTV obtained a cabinet memo suggesting that the Harper government is considering several changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The heart of these changes would mean that violent or repeat young offenders would be much more likely to be tried and sentenced as adults. Is this a move in the right direction? Read on as Torontoist addresses this issue.
It’s time for the legal system to take a firmer hand with the hard core of juveniles who are chronic offenders and violent criminals. Revenge isn’t the reason, although people who’ve been victims of violent crime could be forgiven for being in the mood for some primitive retributive justice. No, the principal reason is that such a measure, as outlined, will achieve the desired goal – a reduction in youth crime – without harming the vast majority of youth who come in contact with the criminal justice system.
The public opinion pendulum on young criminals tends towards regular, predictable swings, from “there’s no such thing as a bad kid” to “let’s hang the little bastards”. The latter theme usually emerges after some particularly hideous and well-publicized crime, when the cry goes up that the youth justice system “coddles” young criminals, by not sending them to prison often enough, or for long enough, or by not ensuring that the experience is brutal enough. That argument is generally specious, as statistics demonstrate that for a majority of juvenile offenders, rehabilitation is more effective than punishment in preventing recidivism.
Neither pleasing a fickle public with constantly changing laws, nor treating all young offenders the same, will address the problem of youth crime. However, the proposed changes do not address that majority of offenders who may find themselves in the system once or twice for relatively minor offenses. The plan as outlined is specifically targeted at creating a preferred option of adult sentencing for repeat criminals, or those who are convicted of serious violent crimes such as murder or aggravated sexual assault.
Statistics show that chronic offenders (five or more incidents) comprise only 16% of young offenders, but are responsible for 60% of courtroom activity. It would appear that the recidivism boat has already sailed for these kids, and at some point public safety must outweigh their “right” to get a quick release back into the community on the unlikely assumption that this time they’ve finally been cured of their antisocial tendencies. A similar principle applies with regard to violent criminals, who tend to have an entirely different – and far more dangerous – psychological makeup than those convicted of property or drug offences.
While it is uncertain whether there is a meaningful deterrent effect that emerges from imposing harsher sentences for violent crimes, especially with juveniles, it can be stated categorically that a violent criminal in jail is less of a threat than one who is armed and on the street. It’s really just about common sense.
Recipe for appearing tough on crime (adapted from Stephen Harper’s Family Values Cooking Guide): Take one fourteen-year-old kid from a poverty-stricken home. Sprinkle his neighbourhood liberally with guns and make his most important role models the drug dealers and gang members who appear to rule his small world. Next, cut any programme that might give that kid more positive role models, or even just something to do with his time. Now wait for the kid to inevitably screw up. Finally, nail him to the wall and serve to an eager public.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not the sort who believes that any kid can be turned around with a hug, a little kindness, and a nicer place to place basketball. These are difficult problems and there are few easy answers, but there’s one simple fact that we don’t acknowledge very often in these debates: almost every kid, rich or poor, will screw up badly at some point in his or her young life. A big part of being a teenager is making bad decisions and learning from them.
Middle class kids take their parents cars without permission, they drive recklessly, they drink, try drugs, have unprotected sex, shoplift, etc. Most of the time, they get away with this stuff and nothing really bad happens. That’s a good thing. After all, these are not bad kids: these are just teenagers acting out in all the ways available to them as members of the middle-class. Add poverty, guns, and gangs to that mix and those same kids would suddenly have many more ways to seriously screw up. It’s not the kids who are different, just the numbers of avenues open to them for wrecking their lives.
I am not equating murder with taking your mom’s car without permission, but, if we’re honest with ourselves and remember what it is like to be a teenager, then maybe we can realize that it’s easy to make just about any bad decision at that age. If we can remember that, then maybe we can temper justice with compassion. The main reason we treat young offenders differently than adults is because we realize that minors don’t have the capacity to make rational, considered decisions in the same way that adults do. The seriousness of a crime is no indication that it was committed by someone with adult capacity and just because someone does something bad as a kid, that doesn’t mean that the rest of their life will be a ruin.
The message that crime is unacceptable is an important one, there’s no doubt about that. Kids need to know that bad choices have grave consequences. That’s the way they learn. But there is another message that we need to send as well: that just because you screw up early in life, that doesn’t mean that you can’t turn things around. Redemption, rehabilitation, and hope should be at the core of the system when dealing with young offenders.