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We need a law with teeth

Wingham Advance-Times editorial

The arrest last week of a 15-year-old boy for a string of sexual assaults in Toronto resulted in a renewed demand for changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, and a further demand the boy be tried as an adult.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act is based on the premise that youth must be held responsible for their crimes, but at the same time are more likely to be fully rehabilitated than adult offenders. The act was implemented in 2003 as a replacement to earlier legislation deemed inadequate – it neither met the needs of society, nor youth charged with or convicted of crimes.

News flash – neither does the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The case of the 15-year-old boy is an excellent example. If he is tried as a youth, his name will never be made public. Should he be convicted, he will serve a relatively short sentence and be out on the street far too soon for public comfort. There is a widespread concern that a person who stalks and sexually assaults that many women (16 that we know of at press time, although police think there may be more victims) has a dangerous compulsion that will likely lead him to re-offend.

One has to wonder about the availability of the kind of counselling available at a youth facility for a crime like this. There are certain offences that by their very nature seem to belong in adult court, and sexual assault, especially against a number of victims, is one of them.

Most people agree that young people sometimes make mistakes that get them in trouble with the law. A 15-year-old who gets caught shoplifting, selling drugs or committing an act of vandalism is probably not a hardened criminal and should not be treated like one. He or she needs to be held responsible for the crime, but is a prime candidate for alternative sentencing – restorative justice, community service and restitution, for example. The young offender needs the chance to learn from his or her mistakes without being saddled with a criminal record that would limit future career options.

A 15-year-old who terrorizes an entire community over several months by committing repeated acts of violence against women is not a kid who made a mistake and is unlikely to do it again. The same could be said of a teenager who commits an offence involving firearms, including robbery or assault, while on probation for a similar crime.

At some point crime becomes not a mistake but a lifestyle, and the legal priority has to shift from protecting the criminal from his own actions, to protecting society from him. It matters little whether the criminal is 16 or 60.

It will be up to our courts to decide if the boy charged with the string of sexual assaults is guilty. If so, no one wants him out on the street in six months, especially without knowing who he is. And he easily could be. If he is found guilty, we want him behind bars for a substantial length of time, in a facility where he will receive expert counselling. When he is released, we want him monitored very carefully. Most of us are well aware Paul Bernardo started his criminal career when he was quite young, committing a series of rapes in the Scarborough area.

Whatever the outcome of the charges against the 15-year-old, the fact remains that Ontario’s youth justice system needs revamping. The revolving door and short sentence scenario may work well – or rather, do little noticeable harm – where offences are minor and non-violent. It gets kids back in their communities quickly, and lets them get on with their lives. Unfortunately, it does the same thing with kids who commit serious crimes – armed robbery, assault with a weapon, sexual assault and murder.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act has no teeth. Young criminals know it, and use it to their advantage. The legislation itself is not completely at fault. There are provisions in the present legislation for youth charged with serious offences to be tried in adult court, but they have been applied rarely, setting an unfortunate precedent.

We need new legislation that recognizes there are more factors to be considered in youth justice than the age of the offender. Certain crimes should automatically shift to adult court unless it can be argued the offender should be tried as a youth.

The bottom line is the Youth Criminal Justice Act was not written with serial rapists and teenaged gangsters in mind, and our courts and law enforcement people need a piece of legislation that is.

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