"We need to find ways of ensuring that children are deterred from crime," Toews told the annual gathering of the Canadian Bar Association. "We need to give courts jurisdiction to intervene in the lives of these young people."
Speaking to reporters later, he did not rule out incarceration of children under 12, but he said the courts' primary focus should be treatment programs outside the jail system.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act, which replaced the young offenders act three years ago, purposely excluded children under 12 because the Liberal government of the day said 12 is considered to be the age at which a young person can understand their actions and consequences.
The law applies to 12- to 17-year-olds, the same age limits as the former young offenders act, which replaced the juvenile delinquents act in 1984.
Several provinces, along with the former Reform party, lobbied hard to include 10- and 11-year-olds in the criminal justice system during heated debates in the late 1990s, arguing they are old enough to be held accountable for their crimes.
Toews said yesterday it's often too late to rehabilitate troubled children who cannot be charged until age 12.
"The theory is that the child-welfare system will take care of those children but that is not the case in most provinces," he said. "In most provinces, in fact, the child-welfare system is allowing criminal conduct to continue among those types of children. They're being used by gangs and drug couriers to do break and enters, there are other kinds of very serious crimes, so by the time they're 12, they're already criminals."
The prospect of including 10- and 11-year-olds in the criminal justice system sparked an angry response from Heather Perkins-McVey, a lawyer for the bar association.
"Does he want the death penalty for them, too?" she asked. "This concerns me that we're going back to the Dark Ages. Maybe we should have work houses too."
Perkins-McVey said the criminal justice system is not the proper place for handling wayward children, who are currently apprehended by child-welfare authorities and offered treatment in group homes.
Toews did not say whether he plans legislation any time soon.
-- CanWest News Service