Will the Liberals get tough on young offenders?

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 11 1994


Will the Liberals get tough on young offenders?

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 11 1994



Will the Liberals get tough on young offenders?


In the space of four days last week, the following incidents occurred in different parts of Canada:

Quebec provincial police made three arrests in St-Jerome after repeated complaints of random shootings of storefronts, cars and houses. The accused were found with rifles, handguns and deactivated hand grenades.

• Ottawa police made three arrests after a 27-year-old British engineer, Nicholas Battersby, died in one of a series of drive-by shootings in the city’s downtown core. One of the accused was charged with seconddegree murder and the two others with manslaughter.

• The British Columbia Supreme Court found teenager Jason Gamache guilty of the 1992 rape and murder of a six-year-old girl.

Along with their violent, unprovoked nature, each incident shared another common element: the alleged—or, in Gamache’s case, convicted—offenders were all under 18 years of age. Because of that, under provisions of the Young Offenders Act (YOA), they are treated much differently than adults

charged with similar crimes. If the youths in Quebec and Ottawa are convicted, they will not be publicly identified and will likely never have criminal records. If the trio charged with Battersby’s killing are tried in a youth court and found guilty, the stiftest sentence any of them can receive is five years in prison, rather than the much longer sentences that adults convicted of similar crimes would face. Even Gamache has benefited in the past from provisions of the act. He was 16 when he committed the murder, and had already been convicted twice of sex offences involving young children. But

because of a provision limiting release of such information, local police did not know that until after the murder.

Small wonder, then, that in the wake of those incidents—and statistics showing violent crime among youths on the rise—federal Justice Minister Allan Rock is under renewed pressure to amend the 10-year-old act. For Rock, a 46-year-old lawyer and political neophyte who is regarded as one of the brighter lights in the Liberal cabinet, the search for solutions presents him with his toughest challenge since assuming the justice portfolio five months ago. One reason is the high emotion

that the subject of youth crime arouses on all sides. Another is the complexity of the reforms that Rock insists are needed. “We agree that there have to be some more effective deterrents,” Rock said in an interview with Maclean’s. “But the real focus will take much longer, because that involves a change in all the factors that lead to crime.” To the justice minister’s critics, such talk suggests that the soft-spoken, intensely polite Rock is more interested in coddling criminals than convicting the guilty. Said Reform MP Art Hanger, a former Calgary policeman: “I think he’s going to be a softie on law enforcement issues.” Added Hanger: ‘We have got to start worrying more about the victim than the perpetrator—and to stop making age an acceptable reason to literally get away with murder.”

That, says Rock, is a notion that he supports—up to a point.

Among the steps that he says he is prepared to take: doubling the maximum jail sentence for juvenile killers to 10 years from five, and easing the process for transferring teenagers charged with violent offences to adult courts.

I As well, in an effort to combat violent crime among all age groups, he is also considering measures I to tighten gun control laws and i access to ammunition.

But before tabling legislation to reform the Young Offenders g Act—which he would like to do before the end of the year—Rock faces a series of messy and potenm tially divisive debates. A meeting | with his provincial counterparts last month exposed some sharp differences. Alberta and Manitoba favored a get-tough approach that included, among other things,

§j sending repeat offenders to military-style boot camps. Quebec and Ontario, on the other hand, expressed general satisfaction with the present law, and urged Rock to instead address the social circumstances that they said lead youngsters to commit crimes. “We agreed there have to be changes to the act,” says Rock. We did not always find agreement on what form those changes should take.”

Those same ideological divisions exist among the Liberals. Some, including Toronto - area MPs John Nunziata and Derek Lee, want the act toughened to provide for stiffer sentences and to make it easier to publicly identify violence-prone teenagers. Nunziata also wants the act changed so that 16and 17-year-olds would be tried in adult courts. But that notion draws sharp criticism from Montreal-area MP Warren Allmand, a former solicitor general who now chairs the House of Commons justice committee. Nunziata, said Allmand, “is way off base. Just because a kid matures physically earlier than he once did doesn’t mean that’s also the case

mentally. You’ve got to treat kids differently than adults.”

In fact, the incidence of violent crime by young people is probably lower than many Canadians believe—though certainly much higher than it once was. On average, according to figures from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, about 30 juveniles each year have been charged with murder since the Young Offenders Act took effect in 1984. That represents about five per cent of the murders committed annually in Canada. Other statistics for 1992, the most recent year available, show that youths between the ages of 12 and 17—who represent about seven per cent of the population—accounted for 30 per cent of Criminal Code offences.

In some cities, the trend towards greater

youth violence is particularly troubling. A survey of Ottawa high-school students last year showed that 21 per cent of students carried some sort of weapon in school. In Montreal, police estimate that close to 7,000 teenagers now belong to organized street gangs. In Winnipeg, the city’s school division, which oversees 34,000 students, last year reported 109 attacks by students on teachers and other staff, as well as 332 attacks by students on other students. In Toronto, where hundreds of young people rioted downtown in May, 1992, a community psychologist with the city’s youth services department, Frederick Mathews, recently warned that the city’s gangs now include children as young as 6.

Because of such findings, one notion agreed upon by all sides is the root cause of youth crime. Says Allmand, who is regarded as one of the most left-wing Liberals on social issues: ‘We are seeing a disintegration

of the family, and that is translating into the kind of problems youth are experiencing now.” Reform’s Hanger generally agrees with that diagnosis, but differs strongly on the remedy. He supports the sort of “shock incarceration” that several American states have employed. Under those programs, young offenders can have their sentences cut in half if they agree to serve them in military-style boot camps.

Although politicians from all parties agree that there is a large public appetite for such strict measures, they have one significant drawback: they often do not work any better than existing programs. A 1992 report prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives judiciary committee found that “early results indicate state boot camps reduce short-term

prison costs and crowding, but not necessarily recidivism or long-term costs.” Similarly, a Colorado state report found that boot camp graduates lapsed back into crime at a higher rate than other offenders.

In fact, many of the changes that Rock is advocating to fight both juvenile and adult crime are likely to be less visible, and aimed more at long-term results. One of those will be the creation next month of a national crime prevention council. One of its key roles, he says, will be to act “as a sort of a clearinghouse in collecting information, making it readily available across the country and co-ordinating efforts to prevent crime.” The aim, says Rock, is to “start ordinary Canadians thinking about means of crime prevention in their everyday lives.” The next—and harder—step will be to translate those thoughts into action.