You’re never too young

By Brian Low

There have been a number of changes to the Young Offenders Act proposed by Liberal Justice Minister Anne McLellan. Some of them are good. Giving judges more options in sentencing is an example of this. It seems reasonable that judges know better than lawmakers what is the most appropriate punishment for those who have broken the law. The proposed legislation has some serious problems, though-like that the majority of the planned changes are awful.

Here’s a good example: McLellan’s changes will make it possible for 14-year-olds to receive adult sentences for offenses committed. The onus will be on the young Offenders to prove why they shouldn’t get bumped to an adult court rather than on the prosecution to prove why they should. Think of the implications. All of a sudden, we’ve got a deluge of 14-year-old kids making their merry little way off to jail for “15 to 30.” Perhaps McLellan has forgotten that they’re eventually going to get out of jail. Are these the kind of middle-aged men and women we want running around? I mean, these probably weren’t the best kids to start with. It is unlikely that growing up and coming of age among hardened criminals will make them any better. All McLellan has done is find an expensive way to make bad kids into even worse adults. Very impressive.

Another proposed change is to allow for publication of the names of accused youth. If this is really supposed to make the system better, why stop at just publishing the names? I mean, think of all the people who don’t read the paper or catch the news on the radio or TV. Let’s tattoo “CRIMINAL” across these kids’ foreheads so they don’t escape anyone’s prejudice. That way, when they get out of jail (or are found innocent, for that matter), we can be sure that none of these kids ever gets a job, rents an apartment, or fits in socially. The Liberals would have us believe that providing the names of the accused to the public will do society a service. Creating a legion of maladjusted miscreants with no way to get their lives back on track and no incentive to stay clean is not exactly a service to society. Maybe it’s just me.

McLellan has also introduced measures that make it easier for statements of the accused to be admitted in court. It appears that the police have found it somewhat inhibiting that the accused has to know and understand his rights before they can use what he says against him. This means they can’t just arrest a kid, scare the hell out of him, and get him to agree to whatever they say he must have done. The Liberals’ solution is to take away all those pesky rules that make it difficulty to admit statements achieved through chicanery and intimidation. So you’ve still got rights, if you can get away with them. This is apparently the Liberals’ conception of justice for all.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that these are all the brainwaves the Liberals have had. They have proposed a number of other changes too, most of which are equally ill-thought out. The thing that really gets me though, is the criticism that the Liberal government has taken over the whole affair. The Reform Party, along with the provincial governments of Alberta and Ontario, has sung out in protest against the proposed legislation. It doesn’t go far enough for them! Preston Manning decried the fact that 10-year-olds weren’t included. Art Hanger, former justice critic, would like caning used as a mode of punishment (he also considers the right to remain silent and the presumption of innocence unnecessary). Is there anyone who really thinks that tossing 10-year-olds in jail or caning them is going to help them return to society as anything but irrevocably damaged goods? If so, why stop there? Let’s include anyone old enough to understand the word “jail,” and break out the cat o’ nine tails and thumbscrews. That’ll really reform them.

These politicians resemble overcrowded rats in their approach to dealing with troubled youth. They cope with the stress by devouring their young. The Liberals have already gone too far, and the only criticism heard from any side is that they haven’t gone far enough. Is there no one with enough sense to see that these so-called criminals are just kids? For the most part they need help, not a heavy-handed justice system designed to inflict the maximum pain possible. If there is any group that is salvageable, if there is any group that deserves a second chance to make it in life, it is youth. We can do better.

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