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What's best for the child

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The summer crime numbers are out -- and they're down we're told -- as the critics howl about the federal government's omnibus crime bill that is expected to tighten up the laws governing young people.

Back in 1984, politicians did away with the Juvenile Delinquent Act with its focus on "misdirected (children)... in need of aid, encouragement, help and assistance," and replaced it with the disastrous, rights-oriented Young Offenders Act.

The YOA was so bad it was trashed in 2003. The Youth Criminal Justice Act followed and it, too, has flopped, leaving the government with little choice but to strengthen the laws that surround youth.

And that brings out the usual suspects and the usual histrionics. Why are the Conservatives embarking on such a mission when crime's down, when youth crime is down?

Some columns of the official data may be down, but that's never the whole story.

A decade ago, there was a perceived need to get the spiralling numbers of incarcerated youth down to an acceptable, if not manageable, number. Lawmakers were committed to that goal.

And so came the YCJA and its lofty statements about responsibility and best interests of the child. But, where the rubber meets the road, it does little more than confound police and courts alike.

The YCJA brought with it a maze of clumsy rules, making it all but impossible for the police to get to the bottom of anything and provides the legal support needed for an offending youth to be less than forthright.

The pre-interview waiver form is such an example. Instead of promoting truthfulness, police must walk each child through a number of questions and cautions that encourage a youngster to remain mum.

The act does not address deterrence and, as such, shields the youth from meaningful and appropriate consequence needed for some crimes. Judges know too well that sentencing guidelines make it difficult to create the structure necessary for the rehabilitation of those in need of the most help -- hard-core young offenders.

Most kids that repeatedly get into serious trouble with the law believe the act's a joke. And there isn't a legal bureaucrat in the country who could successfully argue that hiding the truth of a youngster's criminal behaviour behind the YCJA is in any child's best, long-term interest.

The fallout of being unable to reasonably deal with troubled children is well-illustrated in this last generation's epidemic rise of violence among select factions and their cockeyed notions of personal rights, turf and loss of face.

From 1986 to 1996, under the YOA, the rate of reported violent crime perpetrated by youth rose 121 per cent.

The 10 years that followed didn't brighten that picture.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2007, with the YCJA in force, the country recorded its highest-ever Crime Severity Index for violent, youth crime.

Some are relieved because that out-of-control rate has seen a decline in the last three years (under a Conservative watch, by coincidence). But nobody should get too comfortable, because it's still five per cent higher than just a decade ago.

And that is likely the tip of the iceberg because, according to StatsCan, unreported crime is at record levels -- about 70 per cent of all crime is unreported.

Chalk that up to apathy and fear of a system unable to deal effectively with offenders and by extension unable to protect those who come forward. It's a sorry state when some neighbourhoods fear their children.

According to the most recent Winnipeg Police Service report, 24 per cent of reported crime is cleared. Factor in the unreported and that translates to only about seven cleared cases for every 100 crimes.

Absent family values, no opportunity, too much crack -- whatever the root cause, more emphasis has to be placed on making the child a better person.

Hope for that lies in truth, structure and recognizing a need for accountability. Children crave structure and someone they can count on, 24/7. That requires full-time attention.

If there's little faith in the structured facilities for hard-core convicted youth -- the so-called crime schools -- then that's where the work and investment are needed.

As it stands, the YCJA is an instruction manual for getting out of a jam that contributes to the thrill of crime with a reasonable certainty of little or no consequence.

Currently, a child's expectation to be showered with legal rights, accompanied by their own immaturity and lack of appropriate support are a toxic mix that has too many kids swirling down the drain. That is witnessed time and again in the wasted lives dressed in street-gang garb, many of which will never see middle age.

Tightening the law is less about punishing the child and more about what's good for the child. And that will be good for the country.


Robert Marshall is a retired Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2011 J6

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