Our laws protect us from harm. It is structured in a manner so as to penalize the inappropriate acts or omissions, as well as to shield our rights from being violated and trampled upon. In the United States, for example, there has always been great concern about limiting the potential for oppression by the government. Mindful of the abuses they had suffered at the hands of the English government, the citizens of the newly established American republic sought to safeguard themselves from oppression by the central government.
(Hirschel & Wakefield, 1995, p. 25) The 1996 movie, Sleepers, is a powerful and riveting movie for the reason that it touches on the push and pull of the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to the young offenders. It depicts the tragic stories of four young boys in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, barely making it to puberty, who had the misfortune of seriously hurting a man due to a prank gone wrong. How does the justice system penalize an inappropriate act or omission of someone who is still under the shield of protection because of their age?
Still wanting of maturity and discernment to gauge for themselves what is right and what is wrong? In the movie, the four boys were tried and found guilty of reckless endangerment and sent to Wilkinson Reform School, a juvenile prison, where they were maltreated and abused by fellow prisoners and prison guards alike. The sentence for their wrongdoing was just one year. However, it forever changed their views and their lives. Their experience in that one year of reform school virtually dictated what they will become as adults.
Two of the four boys lived a life of crime and died before they reached 30. Once full of hope and promise, their lives have been poisoned and enveloped by hatred and evil. What happened to these boys is an unfortunate example of how the law delivered the kind of justice that was never intended. The objective of their stay at the reform school was to basically provide an environment to nurture them and guide them to behave within the standards and norms set by society through its laws.
In Canadian jurisdiction, Parliament has passed the most recent law to form the framework for the criminal justice system for the youth — The Youth Criminal Justice Act of 2003. This act aims to strike a more balanced approach between protecting the rights of society and the rights of the young offender — an essential area in the system where its predecessors, The Juvenile Delinquency Act and The Young Offenders Act, have been found inadequate.
The first law to be passed addressing a criminal justice system for the youth was The Juvenile Delinquency Act in 1908 and it inevitably set a major precedence in terms of protecting the rights of the young offenders. The law’s treatment of young offenders was more of a social welfare case rather than adjudication. Before this unprecedented piece of legislation, the law provided for the same treatment for young offenders as it would an adult offender.
Young offenders were tried in an adult court, received punishment as an adult would receive punishment, and sent to adult prisons. Reformers saw at that time the disparity and inequity that this structure brings about to society’s future — the youth. Hence, they enacted a law that is founded on the principle of Parens Patriae. This is a Latin term which literally means “parent of the country”. This term refers to the role of the State as guardians of persons under legal disability, that is, juveniles among others.
The Act states that “every juvenile delinquent shall be treated, not as a criminal, but as a misdirected and misguided child”. It provided for separate courts for young offenders — the juvenile court. One weakness that is noteworthy in the law in its pursuit to afford protection to young offenders is its provision on age that qualifies one to be tried in an adult court. The Act provided that cases of children over the age of 14 and accused of an indictable offense, in the discretion of the juvenile court judge, can be transferred to ordinary courts.
The law also provided that young offenders be placed in detention homes or shelters exclusively for juveniles during the detention period pending the hearing of their case. The law likewise affords protection to the young offender’s privacy as the proceedings as well as the documents relating to the proceedings are kept private and neither the names of the accused nor their parents can be published. The law also allowed greater sentencing options and placed restrictions on the punishment of the offenders.
With the exception of juveniles transferred to adult courts, young offenders who are found guilty and are convicted could not be put in custody in any place "in which adults are or may be imprisoned". In the case of the four boys in the movie Sleepers, this law may not be of much assistance and protection for the young offenders as the qualification as to the kind of offense that can transferred to the adult courts. In this case, the four boys having charged with aggravated assault, they can and probably will transfer the case to an adult court.
Although the law is a great start at lending protection to individuals especially the youth, it lacks the “teeth” to make it as effective as needed. It still lacked stringent procedures on salient areas. A report issued by the Canadian Department of Justice, “Juvenile Delinquency in Canada”, in 1965, pointed out the law’s failure in terms of stating the quality of the reform schools, that is, the types and sizes of institution, the number and qualifications of personnel, and the policies to be administered in the operation of these schools.
There was clearly a deficiency in stringent provisions for limitations on the exercise of court powers. There was also a need for a more flexible provision on sentencing options as well as a provision on the accused being informed of his rights. Moreover, a formal procedure surrounding the exercise of informing the accused of his rights and also an appeals process should be instituted.