Young offenders get Ottawa’s spin [Sebastien’s Law]

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Sat Mar 20 2010

Once again, the Conservative government is warning Canadians that our laws are not strong enough to “protect society.” This time, it is young offenders, as young as 14, who apparently pose a threat.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s solution is “Sébastien’s law.” Tabled this week, its purpose is to treat more youth as adults, put them behind bars for longer periods, and shame them by publicly identifying them.

This will serve to “give Canadians greater confidence that violent and repeat young offenders will be held accountable,” says Nicholson.

As with the dozen other tough-on-crime bills proposed by the Conservatives, there is a lot more spin than substance involved here, regarding both the dangers Canadians face and the effectiveness of the government’s proposed solutions.

For starters, crime rates are dropping in Canada. There is no youth crime wave underway to justify a crackdown.

Moreover, under the existing Youth Criminal Justice Act, judges already have the leeway to impose adult sentences on offenders as young as 14 if they are convicted of serious violent offences.

Indeed, the bill is named after Sébastien Lacasse, a 19-year-old Quebecer whose 17-year-old killer was sentenced as an adult.

Under the existing law, the courts may also opt to lift the customary bans protecting the identity of offenders who receive youth sentences. Therefore, introducing a law that “requires the court to consider” these measures and others may amount to very little.

What Sébastien’s Law would do, though, is change the tone of our youth criminal justice system from rehabilitation and reintegration to punishment and public shaming.

This is particularly troubling given the likelihood that the bill will do nothing to reduce crime but may, in fact, turn more juvenile offenders into hardened criminals and cost taxpayers plenty to keep them locked up.

The government says it will “make protection of society a primary goal of the legislation.”

But legal experts argue compellingly that this can’t be done by tinkering with our criminal justice system. Harsher sentences, particularly for impulsive and immature young people, do not make offenders think twice about committing crimes, says criminologist and youth-justice expert Nicholas Bala.

Contrary to the government’s assertions, this view is supported by evidence both here and in the United States, the poster child for tough-on-crime laws that have cost taxpayers billions without actually helping to reduce crime.

If the government really wants to reduce youth crime, it needs to stop telling Canadians this can be done through the judicial system and start focusing on long-term social investments that deal with the underlying causes, ranging from poverty and broken homes to fetal alcohol syndrome and addictions.

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