Sunday, September 8, 2013

Youth Crime - This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on March 10, 1999.  It was subsequently revised and re-printed by the Vancouver Province in 2004 and the Peterborough Examiner in 2007

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The Conservative Platform on Youth Crime: Why We Shouldn't Just Lock The Door And Throw Away The Keys.

Stephen Harper wants to get tough on crime.  According to their platform, the Conservatives want to “protect our communities from crime by instituting truth in sentencing, tightening parole, and holding young offenders accountable.“  They also want to send youths 14 years of age or older for sentencing to adult courts if they are convicted of serious crimes. Conservative politicians at all levels of government have been pushing the same message for the last 30 years.   

But what exactly does “holding young offenders accountable” mean?  The Conservative platform contains no details.   Also buried in the platform is an intriguing reference to a greater emphasis on “early detection and prevention” of youth crime.  Again, no details. We know the Conservatives would like to see stiffer sentencing, particularly for violent crimes.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), introduced in March of 1999, provides for longer sentences for the most violent young offenders than under the Young Offenders Act.   But criminologists are in agreement over the limited effectiveness of tough sentences for young offenders without a corresponding increase in rehabilitation programs. The experiments with boot camps for young offenders under the Mike Harris government in Ontario came to the same conclusion.  Getting tough on its own does not prevent other youths from offending. The Conservatives know this.  They also know that their voters want an approach to young offenders that can be seen as being tougher than the Liberals.

The liberal doyens of political correctness say that we cannot lock kids up for a long time and expect them to change their ways.  Doing time in the adult system would merely give them graduate-level training in their chosen professions.  The Conservatives reply with variations on the Deterrent Theory.  Start throwing violent kids in the slammer and their peers will start thinking twice before they mug or kill, even if it costs the country $80,000 to keep a kid in adult prison for a year.

The Conservatives could stop trying to please only one side in this debate.  They must take a systemic look at why kids wind up in the criminal justice system in the first place.  Regardless of how tough or lenient the YCJA is, this legislation does nothing to prevent the next generation of offenders from committing their crimes and clogging up our courts.
When youths commit serious crimes and our politicians start screaming for reforms, we collectively hunker down and turn our backs on all kids who are about to become violent criminals.  We stop asking why and start asking how to stop them; then we come to the perfect Darwinian solution: As soon as kids identify themselves as violent threats we should throw them in jail, lock the door and throw away the keys.

The problem is that this solution only addresses the threat posed by the youths who have already committed violent crimes.  This solution has no leverage.  What effect does this tough approach have on the future violent young, the ones who are entering elementary school?  Too few people in any of the parties, Left or Right, are asking the right question.  A better question is: How can we stop violent youth crime in the future? Here is where the Conservatives could make a positive contribution.

I am neither a psychologist nor a legal expert.  But I have worked as a counsellor and youth worker in the youth correctional systems of Quebec and Alberta. 

In one institution, a maximum security "lock-up" for young offenders who had committed violent crimes, new staff were instructed to read every kid’s file.  I soon discovered several common themes:

Many of the kids came from homes where one or both their natural parents did not want to have them around.  These parents did not want to be parents and made that clear as soon as, or even before, the child was born.

As a result, many of them came from single-parent families, almost always women on welfare or working at low-wage jobs, who lost control of their children as early as age five. Many were brought up by grandparents, uncles, aunts or foster parents.  Most (but not all) were brought up in low-income homes.  Their average reading level was the equivalent of Grade Four. 

Common to almost all these case histories was the impression that these young inmates were raised in unstable homes which were emotional junkyards: fighting, screaming, drunkenness, drug abuse, violence, and neglect were the norms.  Definitely not fun places to grow up.  No wonder these kids grew up angry.  My guess is that had a law tougher than the YCJA been in place when these kids were born, they would have still have grown up angry, committed crimes, been caught and been locked up. 

Violent youth crime is a systemic problem, which is to say that we have to be willing to address underlying causes and be prepared for time lags if we want to create effective change.  Unless we do something about the homes and neighbourhoods in which these kids grow up, we cannot keep locking doors on them and expect the problem to miraculously go away.   Is this what the Conservatives mean by “early detection and prevention”?

The Conservatives are wrong.  Throwing the book at today's violent youth offenders will not make tomorrow's kids less prone to committing crimes.  The next generation of offenders is already causing chaos in our elementary schools.  Give them a few years and they will be committing serious crimes and doing time.

But before I again reach for my heavy set of keys and lock the doors for good, I want to make sure that I also unlock some doors for the kids who have yet to enter the system. 

So here is my solution for Stephen Harper and his platform researchers: For every kid we lock up in an adult jail, ten adults across the country should each be required to put in eight hours of volunteer time with a youth group like Big Brothers/Sisters, Cubs or Brownies, or a local public school.  If you cannot stand to be around kids, then volunteer some time or give money to an anti-poverty group, a support group for single parents, or a scholarship fund for low-income parents who want to up-grade their job skills. 

Or do something about an economic system that is leaving so many families behind despite our rising GDP.  Let those who scream for tougher sentences start investing some time and care in the youth of tomorrow before they, like I used to do, simply turn the keys and walk away.                 

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