Playing politics with youth crime
TheStar.com – Federal Election – Playing politics with youth crime
September 25, 2008
In his latest attempt to burnish his tough-on-crime credentials, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proposing to erode long-standing distinctions between Canada’s youth and adult justice systems by making it easier to impose adult-length sentences on young people convicted of violent crimes.
Under the Conservative proposal, teens as young as 14 who are found guilty of murder would face a “maximum enhanced youth sentence” of life in prison, compared with current maximum youth sentences of 10 years for first-degree murder and seven years for second-degree murder. Maximum youth sentences for other serious violent offences would also be stiffened.
The Conservatives clearly hope their proposal to overhaul the Youth Criminal Justice Act will win them votes from crime-weary urban residents who feel under siege, while not offending Quebec, where the stiffer penalties reportedly would be applied only at age 16.
But as with many anti-crime proposals brought forward in the heat of an election campaign, this one has more to do with hot-button politics than rational policy-making.
First of all, it is far from clear that the change is necessary. Currently, if the Crown can persuade a judge that a longer, adult sentence is justified, a youth who commits murder can already be sentenced to life in prison, albeit with earlier parole eligibility than an adult. The Conservatives haven’t made a compelling case that this hurdle is too high.
Harper’s claim that raising maximum youth sentences to adult levels will deter youth crime is also debatable. It may cause some savvy young people to think twice about committing a crime, but it will do little to stop teens from breaking the law impulsively. In some cases, longer sentences may do the opposite of what Harper intends by turning teens into hardened criminals.
Besides these concerns, the Conservatives may be deliberately setting up a collision with the Supreme Court of Canada.
In May, the top court struck down a “reverse onus” provision of the law that required judges to impose adult sentences on young offenders over 14 found guilty of the worst crimes unless the youth’s lawyer could demonstrate why a youth sentence would suffice. In a decision that irked the Harper government, the majority found “the presumption of an adult sentence in the onus provisions is inconsistent with the principle of fundamental justice that young people are entitled to a presumption of diminished culpability” by virtue of their age, immaturity and “reduced capacity for moral judgment.”
Proposing to make adult-level sentences automatically available to youth court judges in the guise of “enhanced youth sentences” looks like a calculated attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court.
That may gain Harper political points among Conservatives who see “judicial activism” lurking in every top-court judgment, but it is unlikely the Supreme Court judges would let it stand.