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Getting a degree in applied auto theft

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The stunning report by colleague James Turner in today's dead-tree Free Press has certainly advanced the contentious debate over what to do about the very worst car thieves. The report notes that nearly half of 194 inmates serving time in the Manitoba Youth Centre are in for auto-theft related crimes. Worse, these "worst-of-the-worst" offenders spend their time at the MYC swapping war stories and tips on how to steal certain kinds of cars or evade police in high-speed chases.The hard-core, thrill-seeking car thief has certainly become THE story in this city. Week after week, we read about chronic and incorrigible auto thieves who are begging for police to take them on a high-speed chase through city streets. Then we read about how they celebrate their criminal accomplishments and thumb their nose at the inability of the youth criminal justice system to stop them from unleashing their mayhem on the city.There has been a vigorous debate ongoing in this country about how best to deal with youth offenders. This space has challenged the efficacy of longer sentences as a tool to curb youth crime. But let me be the first to say that what may apply to the gross majority of youth offenders does not apply to the hardest of the hardcore. Longer sentences may not deter these violence junkies, but society is probably left with little other choice but to create a new category of dangerous offender whose sentences will be comensurate with their lack of remorse and dedication to their evil craft.I suppose there were quite a few people who saw this day coming. Various law enforcement and government programs have cut down on the sheer number of auto thefts and auto thieves, but in a stroke of tragic irony we have been left with a smaller number of more dedicated car thieves creating as much or more carnage. In the early days of the debate over MPI's forced immobilizer program, there were quiet voices warning us about what would happen when the less dedicated car thieves were frustrated enough to give up joy riding - we'd be left with the real hard cases.But how do we defuse these ticking time bombs? I'm still sceptical about longer sentences, but I'll acknowledge we have few other tools to directly combat this problem. It's important to note that Turner's story confirmed that MYC inmates get absolutely no access to counselling or programs to convince them there are other options in life. Crime and punishment types will sneer at "programming" as a solution but doing absolutely nothing seems to be a recipe for disaster.I know quite a few people in corrections and they often tell me about how few people are "reformed" by a stint in jail. There is a small percentage who get a taste of the big-house life and decide they never want to experience that again. There are many more, however, who thrive inside prison because of the rigid order, relatively low-maintenance lifestyle (you don't have to make many decisions, and have no real responsibilities to deal with) and three square meals a day. And then, there are those who see a few years here and there in a prison as at worst the cost of doing business, and at best it's a badge of honour.The rantings of these hard-core car thieves are beginning to sound more and more like the twisted rationalizations of those revelling in a life of organized crime. It's a certainty that gang activities motivate some of the remorseless auto thieves but others are likely aimless youth who have found an exciting identity as a fearless, gangsta car jacker. And it has clearly become a culture in and of itself - which really puts them in a similar context with real gansters.I agree these thugs are unlikely to be persuaded to give up this identity/culture when confronted by the current array of tools in the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The CJA is predicated on the belief that most youth offenders do not require hard jail time to turn their lives around. The problem is these hard cases no longer live in a world that is even remotely connected to the CJA. Would minimum (longer) sentences or dangerous offender classifications change their outlook? That is the gazillion-dollar question. However, even those of us who like to piss on longer sentences have to admit that faced with the current situation, the issue of longer sentences has nothing to do with rehabilitiation and more to do with doing something, anything, to get as many of these hard cases off the streets and away from car ignitions.Classic bleeding-heart liberal analysis (and I'll admit I'm guilty 100 per cent on that charge) would say this only defers the problem, and doesn't solve it. But all sides of the debate realize we've reached a new risk level when the criminals get their kicks by engineering increasingly dangerous high-speed chases with police. I have less trouble understanding why people steal to make money, or to increase a sphere or power/influence. But criminals who offend simply for the thrill of the offense is frightening to everyone, regardless of politics or ideology.More importantly, there are certain types of criminals for whom incarceration is a matter of public safety, not reformation. Nobody thinks Clifford Olson or Paul Bernardo will be reformed by a stint in prison. We lock them up forever because it's the only option we have (short of the death penalty, but we won't get into that here.) I'm not sure if it's fair to compare these chronic car thieves with Bernardo, but you have to wonder if the psychology is similar.Those who long for longer sentences for all young offenders should take comfort. Given the increasingly violent nature of the criminals and their crimes, I can't see how you're not going to get your wish.-30-

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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