A few years back, Anne McLellan, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, introduced the new Youth Criminal Justice Act which replaces the Young Offenders Act (YOA) as part of the Government of Canada’s Youth Justice Strategy.
It’s probably not a bad idea to know what our lawmakers are talking about; especially when it affects you. Lately, the hot topic of discussion at Parliament Hill has been Teen Crime and Punishment.
According to McLellan, our government decided to overhaul the youth justice system in response to what Canadians were telling them, “Most had lost confidence in the Young Offenders Act. The system didn’t seem to be working very well, with increasing numbers of young people in jail for relatively minor offences.”
The federal justice minister spoke at a youth justice conference as her proposed young offenders legislation was under scrutiny in the House of Commons in Ottawa. She says that calls for tougher sentences for young offenders are a simplistic answer to a complex problem.
Throwing children or teenagers who break the law into prisons designed for adults makes no sense, she says.
The proposed legislation drew criticism from the opposition Reform party for being too easy on youth who get in trouble with the law. The Reform party wants the age of offenders covered by the law to be lowered to 10 from 12 and says youth older than 15 should be automatically transferred to adult court.
McLellan isn’t buying it.
“Putting kids in jail, though sometimes necessary, is not an effective response to youth crime,” McLellan says. “Once you talk to Canadians, they’re the ones who tell us putting more young people in jail for longer will not make this a safer society,” she says. The legislation also proposed lowering the age of those who could get adult sentences to 14 from 16 and imposing supervision on all young offenders who have done time in jail.
She feels, “We need to acknowledge that when serious things happen, there needs to be meaningful consequences. “The Reform party says youth get caught in a cycle of crime because they know there are no serious consequences.
Perhaps they’re right. Faze Teen spoke with ‘John Doe’ who at the age of 15 was charged with grand theft auto and possession over $1000. When asked why he did it, he responded, “I did it for something to do–it was all for fun.” John went on to say, “I knew the law. I knew the worst thing that could happen was serving some community hours because I was a young offender and it would be my first offence.”
However, when we asked John if he would have still committed the crime if he knew the consequences would be severe, he answered, “I thought I would get away with it, so it didn’t matter what the penalties were.”
According to the Canadian Criminal Justice Association, lawyers who are familiar with young offenders are unanimous in stating that, “These youths, at the time of their offence, gave no consideration to the consequences of their actions and that they would in no way be deterred from committing offences if they knew that their name would be published in the paper; no more than they would be if they knew that they would be subjected to more severe sanctions.”
Faze spoke with another young offender, Jane Doe. When asked what was going through her head as she attacked a young girl with a knife, she answered, “She had provoked me for months, so at the time, I was mad–and she was just making me madder!” At 14, Jane was charged with aggravated assault with a weapon. She recalls, “There were four teachers, two principals and several students watching, so I knew I’d be caught but didn’t care at that time.”
Would severe consequences have deterred her from the assault? She says, “I probably still would have done it, since I wasn’t thinking about the punishment anyway.”
Needless to say, this new legislation will not please everyone.
Justice Minister McLellan says that the legislation is part of a wider strategy dealing with youth crime that doesn’t always involve judges and jails, but community-based efforts to prevent kids from becoming criminals.
Based on government statistics, of the approximately 110,000 cases heard in Canadian youth courts in 1996-97:
· 24 % involved 17-year-olds
· 24 % involved 16-year-olds
· 22 % were 15-year-olds
· 15 % were 14-year-olds
· 8 % were 13-year-olds
· 3 % were 12-year-olds
PREVALENCE OF VIOLENT CRIME BY AGE GROUP
Distribution of population by age group
Distribution of violent offences by age group
12 – 17 yrs
18 – 24 yrs
25 – 34 yrs
34 and older
Source: CCJS, Uniform Crime Report
The Youth Criminal Justice Act Simplified
Key elements of the new legislation include 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 offences for which a youth is “presumed” to receive an adult sentence from murder, attempted murder, manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault to include a new category for repeat serious violent offences.
- Lower the age for youth who are presumed to receive an adult sentence to include 14- and 15-year-olds.
- Permit the publication of names of: (i) all youth who receive an adult sentence; (ii) 14- to 17-year-olds given a youth sentence for murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, aggravated sexual assault or repeat serious violent offences, unless a judge decides to maintain a publication ban based on rehabilitation and public interest considerations; and (iii) youth at-large considered by a judge to be dangerous.
- Maintain youth sentences for murder at a maximum of 10 years for first degree murder and a maximum of 7 years for second degree murder.
- Promote a constructive role for victims and communities to be involved in the youth justice system, including victim impact statements in court.
- Give the courts more discretion to receive as evidence voluntary statements by youth to police.
- Create a special sentence for serious violent offenders who suffer from mental illness, psychological disorder or emotional disturbance to include an individualized plan for custodial treatment and intensive control and supervision.
- Require all custody be followed by a period of controlled supervision in the community equal to half the period of custody subject to mandatory conditions like keeping the peace, reporting to authorities and not possessing weapons. Optional conditions may be imposed to establish structure in the youth’s life, such as attending school, maintaining employment, obeying a curfew, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, attending counselling; preparing a reintegration plan; or staying away from gangs. A youth may be returned to custody if these conditions are not met.
- Permit tougher penalties for adults who willfully fail to comply with the court to properly supervise the youth who has been denied bail and placed in their care.
- Permit the provinces to have young people or their parents pay for their legal counsel in cases where they are capable of paying.
- Encourage community-based sentences and alternatives for youth who commit non-violent offences, such as compensation or restitution to the victim; community service or probation; police warnings or police cautions; referral to community programs or a “family group conference” that may involve the young person, victim, parents, community agencies or professionals.
- Require police to consider informal alternatives before laying charges; and allow provinces-territories to require the Crown counsel to screen charges before they are laid against a youth.
- Give provinces and territories more flexibility in moving youth who reach adult age. A maximum age of 20 would be established as the limit for the youth justice system, but the legislation would permit provincial authorities to retain an offender in the youth system beyond this age, if appropriate.
For more information on the new Youth Criminal Justice Act, visit: The Department of Justice Canada at www,canada.justice.gc.ca or search for the “Canadian Criminal Justice Resource Page” and the “Canadian Criminal Justice Association.”
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