CANADA

Tackling youth crime

Ottawa’s proposed reforms anger both sides

WARREN CARAGATA June 13 1994
CANADA

Tackling youth crime

Ottawa’s proposed reforms anger both sides

WARREN CARAGATA June 13 1994

Tackling youth crime

Ottawa’s proposed reforms anger both sides

In Kingston, Ont., Arnold Sikkema dies after being stabbed repeatedly. The 16year-old convicted of the crime gets three years. In Edmonton, Barb Danelesko is murdered in her own home by intruders. The three teenagers charged with the slaying could be jailed for as little as five years if convicted. In Ottawa, Nicholas Battersby is walking down the street one Sunday when he is killed in a drive-by shooting. Three teenagers are charged in his murder. In the Okanagan town of Oyama, B.C., Rodney Bell scolds some kids for going through a stop sign. The next night, he is brutally attacked and seriously injured, his head caved in with the blunt end of an axe.

Incidents like those in past weeks have raised a public cry that teenage crime is out of control and youthful miscreants are too often getting off scot-free, or with what seems like just a tap on the wrist for murder and other violent crimes. Last week, Justice Minister Allan Rock tried to defuse some of the public anger by bringing in legislation that would toughen up the much-maligned Young Offenders Act—the 10-year-old federal legislation that governs youngsters aged 12 to 17. While the proposed changes fell well short of what the Reform party and victims-of-violence groups had demanded, Rock made no apologies for trying to reach a compromise solution to a vexing issue. “The bill,” he told the House of Commons, “reflects a balance between a strong message against violence and the rehabilitation of the offender.”

The legislation proposes a maximum sentence of 10 years for first-degree murder and seven years for second-degree murder. The

current maximum for both is now five years. When teenagers are transferred to adult court and convicted of murder, they would have to wait longer for parole—10 years in the case of first-degree murder. Now, parole can be granted after serving between five and 10 years. The amendments would also make it more likely that children aged 16 and 17 who are charged with violent crimes will be tried in adult court.

The changes fall short of the basic overhaul of the act demanded by Reformers. In particular, the government rejected demands that the law be amended so that children under the age of 12 who commit serious crimes could be charged. “It really misses the mark,” says Paul Forseth, a Vancouver-area Reform MP and former probation officer. On the other hand, Bloc Québécois MP Antoine Dubé, the party’s youth critic, accused Rock of giving in to pressure from right-wingers in his caucus and making punishment more important than rehabilitation.

Rock promised the legislation will be followed by a full-scale review of the Young Offenders Act by the Commons justice committee by February, 1995. That examination is to include the controversial question of whether all those aged 16 and 17 accused of violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter and aggravated assault should be sent to adult court. In the meantime, Rock said the new bill satisfies a Liberal election promise to reform the act. That may be, but the cries for tougher justice are unlikely to be muted by what the justice minister acknowledges is an attempt to find a middle road.

WARREN CARAGATA