Although the 1984 Young Offenders Act was a stark improvement to the 1908 Juvenile Delinquents Act, there were still some issues that need to be addressed. Children’s rights advocates expressed their concerns over the widening use of incarceration as a form of punishment especially for the youth. Instead of focusing on punishment, there is a need to concentrate on the before and after of the offense. There is a need to intensify provisions on youth crime prevention, and the rehabilitation and reintegration of young offenders to society to enable them to live and enjoy meaningful lives.
British Columbia Police’s crime summary statistics reveal that on average, young offenders represent approximately 25% of all persons charged with criminal code offenses in British Columbia. Young offenders charged with violent offenses increased by 156% from 1240 in 1987 to 3171 in 1996. Of the 75,600 persons recommended for charge, 15,600 were young offenders. 11 of the 70 persons charged with murder were young offenders. The majority of charges against youth are for non-violent property offenses and half of these are for theft under $5,000.
In 2003, Parliament then enacted the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Once again, the law attempts to cure the inadequacies of the 1984 act. It provided stipulations in using the formal justice system sparingly, and aspired to reduce the reliance to imprisonment and improved on the provisions dealing with reintegration of young offenders into the community after custody. The law’s preamble states, among other things, “that information about youth justice, youth crime and the effectiveness of measures taken to address youth crime should be publicly available”.
More importantly, its Declaration of Principles delineates what sets it apart from its predecessors, that is, “Canadian society should have a youth criminal justice system that commands respect, takes into account the interests of victims, fosters responsibility and ensures accountability through meaningful consequences and effective rehabilitation and reintegration, and that reserves its most serious intervention for the most serious crimes and reduces the over-reliance on incarceration for non-violent young persons”.
In addition, the palpable difference between the 2003 Act and the 1984 Act it repealed was with respect to youth sentencing. The 2003 Act provided in its section regarding youth sentencing an outline of further principles in addition to the general principles already stated in its preamble. It asserts that the primary purpose of sentencing is to hold a young person accountable through the imposition of just sanctions that have meaningful consequences for the young person and, more importantly, that promote his or her rehabilitation and reintegration into society, thereby contributing to the long-term protection of the public.
It reserves committal to custody to the more violent of offenses only. The length of period for committal to custody is virtually the same as with the 1984 Act. In the movie Sleepers, therefore, this law provides more room for maneuver in terms of avoiding imprisonment as the main objective of the system is to promote a sense of responsibility in the young person and an acknowledgment of the harm done to victims and community.
This law may look upon the four boys more kindly as it sets forth the degree of participation by the young offender in the commission of the offense as well as whether it was intentional or reasonably foreseeable as factors to be considered in sentencing the young offenders. In the movie, they never intended nor did the four boys foresee the harm that will be cause by their prank. The case of the Hell’s Kitchen’s young boys was the very case that the law was set out to avert, that is, a disproportion on the charge and eventual sentence to the seriousness of the offense and the degree of responsibility of the young offenders for the offence.
“Greater optimism about rehabilitation began to be found in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, with moves being made to avoid what had become almost a competition between community sentences and prisons – illustrated by the phrase 'alternatives to prison'. ” (Cochrane, Melville & Marsh, 2004, p. 213) With the restorative justice system, imprisonment is the last resort. Restorative justice puts the emphasis on the wrong done to a person as well as on the wrong done to the community.
It recognizes that crime is both a violation of relationships between specific people and an offence against everyone – the state. Restorative justice programs seek healing, forgiveness and active community involvement. The case of the four boys of Hell’s Kitchen is a prime example of a situation that can be dealt with by the restorative justice system. The boys pulled off a prank that has gone terribly wrong. It was never intentional. It lacked criminal malice. It should not replace the established criminal justice system but more of complementing it.
The youth are society’s future. Therefore, they should be afforded adequate protection from harm. It is a difficult act when Parliament strives to achieve an equilibrium between protecting the rights of society’s future and the rights of society itself. A rights-based ideology broadly guarantees to the victim a certain legally-enforceable position, whereas a welfare ideology either tries to alter the working practices of professionals or provides for certain discretionary facilities for which victims can apply.
(Fennell, Harding, Jorg, & Swart, 1995, p. 302) Nevertheless, the penal provisions of the 2003 Act puts some muscle into the criminal justice system and the restorative justice programs in place lends a “heart” and infuses the element of care in an otherwise harsh framework. With these two programs working together, although youth crime not entirely be prevented, society’s future may be cushioned and hopefully safeguarded and preserved.
Cochrane, J. , Melville, G. , & Marsh, I. (2004). Criminal Justice: An Introduction to Philosophies, Theories and Practice. London: Routledge. Fennell, P. (Ed. ), Harding C. (Ed. ), Jorg, N. (Ed. ), & Swart, B. (Ed.) 1995. Criminal Justice in Europe: A Comparative Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Hirschel, J. D. , & Wakefield, W. (1995). Criminal Justice in England and the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. The 1908 Juvenile Delinquents Act of Canada. The 1984 Young Offenders Act of Canada. The 2003 Youth Criminal Justice Act of Canada. The US Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act (18 USC 5031 et seq. ).