Will the new Youth Justice Act make a difference?

By Ian Foster
Bishops College
St. John's, Newfoundland

Anne McLellan, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, has introduced new legislation in the House of Commons to replace the existing Young Offenders Act.

There has been much debate over the new legislation, know as the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Primarily, the new "legislation would better distinguish between violent and non-violent crime and provide appropriate measures to deal with both; strengthen efforts to rehabilitate young people who commit crimes; and encourage the use of effective and meaningful alternatives to custody for non-violent crimes. This new legislation, particularly the new category 'pattern of violent behaviour', is long overdue.

When she first announced the proposal, McLellan said, "Canadians want a youth justice system that protects society and instills values such as accountability, responsibility and respect. They want governments to help prevent youth crime in the first place and make sure there are meaningful consequences when it occurs."

The new act responds to citizens' concerns over the rising number of violent crimes committed by people under the age of 18. Under the old act, the maximum sentence for any crime including murder, assault, sexual assault was five years in juvenile detention.

The new act provides for trial and punishment as an adult for youths age 14 and up for serious offenses. It is intended to act as a deterrent. Other portions expand the courts powers of discretion where mental instability is a problem, and in the areas of rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

However, the new act still fails to deal with potential criminal activity by those below the age of 14, and there have been some cases, even of murder, being committed by children as young as seven. It is questionable also whether the current changes will act as a deterrent to a group of people who probably couldn't read the act with understanding even if they were inclined to. I would venture to say the few if any persons guilty of criminal offenses ever read up on the consequences of a crime before they commit it.

The problem with crime in a society is always difficult to address. Does a rise in the crime rate mean the society is disintegrating? And if so, at what point? The family level? The community level?

Laws tend to be written after the fact, just as this one is. It may provide a better mechanism for controlling the behavior of those to whom it is applied; but it will not prevent the crimes which bring the perpetrators into contact with the law.

Some psychologists maintain that anti-social behavior can be spotted in children as young as three and even suggest intervention should start then. But no one as yet has come up with a sure-fire grading system that will distinguish between the potential murderer and someone who just doesn't communicate well or prefers to be a loner. Another danger here is that intervention may only result in the subject becoming better at hiding violent tendencies rather than dealing with them.

Strong, close-knit families and communities probably have a better chance at minimizing violent crime than any system of justice, which can only react to the occurrence.