Our Federal Conservative Government often pushes the crime button and hopes to scare the electorate and engender them more support. They especially like to talk about youth crime and how soft the Canadian system is on kids and more importantly, how they can toughen up penalties to put kids in jail easier and longer. Although this sells well politically, it raises the obvious question of whether being tough on youth criminals is the best way of dealing with kids in trouble.
As a criminal defence lawyer who has represented kids in trouble for twenty years, I can tell you that kids receive as harsh of a penalty as adults do and sometimes even harsher penalties for the same type of crime, contrary to what the Tories would like everyone to believe. But do tougher sentences solve the youth criminal problem?
Juvenile Justice Experts in the United States are now strongly advocating what has become known as the "Missouri Model." This model emphasizes rehabilitation, not punishment. Incarcerated youths are kept in small groups with a heavy emphasis on therapy and minimal force. The accommodations are comfortable in cottage-style dormitories in a wooded setting, there are no barbwires or steel bars. Essentially the idea was to treat kids in trouble as patients who need help as opposed to criminals who need punishment.
What is interesting; Missouri has now one of the lowest recidivism rates in the entire United States of America. The reality is, it works, and other States including Florida, Illinois and Louisiana are now moving in a similar direction.
The reality is most kids who do crime, need help not punishment and if you wish them to stop doing crime in the future, it's better to help them when they are young rather than locking them up and throwing away the key.
Sadly, our Federal Government is going in the complete opposite direction with discussions of toughening up the Youth Criminal Justice Act and establishing mandatory minimum sentences for a whole range of offences, including simple possession of Marijuana. I question their motives in doing this. Do they really wish to deal with youth crime or do they simply wish to be re-elected?
Shawn Swarts is a partner at the law firm of Cobb & Jones, who practices primarily criminal law. Should you have any questions for Ask a Lawyer, please direct them to the Simcoe Reformer or ask a lawyer of your choice.