Reaching youth before they turn to crime – Opinion – Reaching youth before they turn to crime
September 26, 2008. L. Ross Sinclair

Stephen Harper’s recent announcement that his government will adopt adult sentencing for youths 14 and over who commit serious violent crimes has ignited debate. Will it work? Is it constitutional? Is it the right thing to do? These are issues that policy experts will determine, but however Canadians feel about this, it is indisputable that society and young people are much better off if youth don’t become involved in crime to begin with.

That statement is so self-evident that it is almost banal. If kids aren’t committing crimes, then society doesn’t suffer property losses, injuries or loss of life. Police resources can be focused elsewhere. Communities are safer and more enjoyable. And the supply chain of adult criminals is cut off.

From a businessperson’s point of view, the best return on investment is to reach the young person before they commit the crime and begin generating all the economic and societal expense that falls out of that crime.

Groups like ProAction Cops & Kids, which aims to create positive relationships between police and youth, might be able to do more to make our society safe and steer at-risk kids toward more productive lifestyles than any tough-on-crime program, no matter how well conceived.

ProAction, for example, is a not-for-profit group that funds programs developed and run by police officers for at-risk youth in the communities where the cops work.

Kids who are at risk may be those dealing with physical issues (hyperactivity, learning disabilities), family situations (poverty, absent or incapacitated parents) or community issues (guns, gangs and drugs).

It’s easy to tell a kid to “just say no,” but after that you have to give that kid a safe place to go, give them socializing experiences, provide positive adult role models and help them develop leadership skills. Kids will learn life skills from their environment. If we want to dramatically reduce youth crime, then we have to get the right learning opportunities into their environment.

Officers who have run ProAction-funded programs, whether a sports program, theatre, music, technology, photography, camping or taking kids to help with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, all say the same thing: The experience is life-changing on both sides of the relationship. It breaks down stereotypes and creates bonds of trust. It defeats the code of silence that so many communities live with related to gang violence.

In the case of ProAction, we see that once cops and kids are partners in their communities, both are changed. The kids who were at-risk develop the skills, character and alternatives to avoid the traps in their environment, and they become role models for others around them. They create a positive ripple effect.

ProAction is one pre-emptive opportunity, and there are others. What is most important in the discussion of youth crime is not how severely we punish them after they have committed the crime, but how effectively we engage with them before they commit the crime. As adults, it’s up to us to provide them with better alternatives.

Of course, resources are always a frustration in the not-for-profit section. For every kid ProAction is able to reach, there are a hundred we do not. But this is genuinely a case in which it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness because in this case the dim light of hope that a single candle casts may be enough to save one kid from heading down the wrong path, and that creates enormous benefits to us all.

L. Ross Sinclair is the volunteer president of ProAction Cops & Kids ( and a Partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

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