A rash of teenage homicides has pushed public anger to the boiling point
KIDS WHO KILL
A rash of teenage homicides has pushed public anger to the boiling point
Throughout history, the image of the evil child has provoked fear and hysteria. In medieval Europe, superstitious peasants believed that children were particularly prone to demonic possession—and that deformed infants and imbeciles were actually sinister creatures called changelings, offspring of elves substituted for human babies. Torturing changelings did not, as hoped, bring about the return of the real baby but did condemn several youngsters to serious abuse. In the video age, millions of viewers are held spellbound by baby-faced emissaries of darkness in horror films like The Exorcist, Carrie,
The Omen and Scanners. The popularity of these movies is a testament to the public’s morbid fascination with the possibility that a juvenile, presumed to be innocent, naive and relatively harmless, could in fact be a cold-blooded executioner. In Canada in 1994, it is the fear of the homicidal adolescent— predatory and wildly unpredictable— that is now adding a shrill edge to the debate over how society should deal with violent young criminals.
Unlike the malevolent youths in Hollywood horror films or legends, adolescents in Canada kill real people—more than 40 a year on average.
While that rate has remained relatively stable for decades, the number of adolescents charged with various types of assault, weapons offences, robbery and manslaughter has more than doubled since 1986. And a recent rash of audacious—and highly publicized—fatal shootings and stabbings by teenagers has pushed public anger to the boiling point. Even more shocking to many Canadians is the fact that a teenage killer can be freed in as little as 12 months; that was the sentence served by a 16-year-old Toronto adolescent for a 1992 second-degree murder conviction. Public outrage over the perceived lenient treatment of juvenile killers and other violent teens prompted federal Justice Minister Allan Rock, a 46-year-old father of four, to propose a series of measures in June to toughen Canada’s Young Offenders Act.
That law governs crimes committed by youths aged 12 to 17; children under 12 cannot be charged with a crime, but may be placed under the supervision of provincial child protection authorities.
Among the proposed changes to the act:
• An increase in the maximum sentence for first-degree murder to 10 years. The current maximum is three years in “closed custody” in a juvenile detention centre, followed by two years in “open custody” in a group home or halfway house.
• The automatic transfer of violent offenders, aged 16 and 17, to adult court—and later adult prisons—unless it is clear that they can be rehabilitated in the youth system. At present, the Crown must make an application to transfer more serious charges to adult court.
• Allowing the release of young offenders’ names and records to school officials, professionals and even neighbors, but not to the media. The act currently forbids any identification of a youth charged with a crime.
• Compelling young offenders to participate in treatment programs. The current law allows youths to refuse treatment or therapy, even if it is recommended by a judge.
Rather than calming the public, Rock’s suggested reforms have only turned up the volume in the debate over juvenile justice. While opposition critics and citizens are demanding stiffer penalties to hold youths more accountable for their acts, a loose fraternity of lawyers, doctors, psychologists, social workers and criminologists want the state to spend more tax dollars on treatment programs for violent young criminals rather than on jails. Each side will be pushing its agenda before Parliament’s standing committee on justice, which resumes hearings on the amendments on Sept. 19—and will then recommend changes before a final bill is presented for a vote next year.
Adding an explosive element to the debate is the continuing violence on the street. On July 31 in downtown Toronto, Vladimir Creft, the 16year-old son of former Grenadian prime minister Maurice Bishop, died after his aorta was sliced in a knife attack by a teen gang during a reggae concert. The next day, a 16-year-old boy shot up the front of a dance club near the city’s SkyDome with a Browning 9-mm semi-automatic pistol, and wounded a patron in the back. In Montreal, on June 21, a 16-year-old boy was sentenced to three years in custody for literally blowing out the brains of Korean store owner Chul Jea Cho, 55, with a 12-gauge shotgun during a robbery. In April alone, police charged a trio of Ottawa teenagers with killing British engineer Nicholas Battersby in a drive-by shooting, while in Edmonton another three teens were arrested for allegedly knifing housewife Barbara Danelesko to death during a bungled burglary.
Experts are quick to argue that the recent violence does not constitute a growing crime wave. Juvenile murderers have been around for centuries—the Roman emperor Nero dressed in disguises when he was a teenager, stabbed old men to death and dumped their bodies into sewers. In Canada today, killings by kids are actually rather rare: of the approximately 75,000 convictions registered in youth courts in 1992, roughly 60 per cent were for property crimes—and less than one-tenth of one per cent for murder.
But it is not so much the crimes as the sentencing that has become a political lightning rod. Manitoba Justice Minister Rosemary Vodrey cautiously praised Rock’s move to lengthen sentences. “We support the changes but we are looking for more,” she said. Cecile Toutant, on the other hand, says that the provision to automatically refer violent offenders to adult court—and, ultimately, federal penitentiaries—would be harmful to Canadian society. Toutant is head of the juvenile unit at Institut Philippe Pinel, a maximum security psychiatric hospital in Montreal. Toutant’s unit, which has treated about 30 teenage murderers, houses inmates in college-style dormitory rooms rather than cells. The closely supervised youths are also offered high-school classes, sports activities, therapy and peer group counselling in such topics as conflict resolution—costly rehabilitation programs that are scarce in adult prisons. “I think this proposed law is crazy,” declares Toutant. “Our adult prison system is getting so violent it’s a miracle it doesn’t blow up. And we’re going to send kids there? It’s like putting them in a graduate school for crime.”
Along with the debate over punishment there is little consensus on why children kill. On the following pages, Maclean’s reporters profile three teenage killers in depth: a B.C. youth who raped and strangled a six-yearold girl (page 34); a Nova Scotian who, at 13, shot a neighbor for no apparent reason (page 37); and a 16-year-old boy who gunned down his family two years ago (page 38). What the youths have in common is a stunning ço lack of empathy for their victims at the time of their crimes, á That is a characteristic that Montreal psychiatrist Louis Morissette, an exu pert in the treatment of violent youths, is seeing more often in his practice. “I get more adolescents who are almost borderline personality types, like the characters in the movie Silence of the Lambs,” he says. “Many of these teens were hurt as children and now want revenge. They take pleasure in inflicting pain.” Morissette says it is not just the kids who are ultimately at fault. “Adults are taking less responsibility for things in life. They are less committed to their marriages, their jobs and spending time with their children.” In a parting shot to all parents, he cautions: “Don’t blame schools or laws for these meaner kids—look at yourselves and what you’re doing at home.”
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