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Teen beat 

Youth crime has been high profile lately and, as a result, so has the Youth Criminal Justice Act and provincial justice minister Michael Baker’s attempt to amend it. But are his efforts misdirected?

"MOST of us in here have already chose our path and we’re already doing what we’re going to do,” says Lloyd, leaning forward in his chair and clasping his hands. “They need to work more toward younger kids.”

He speaks slowly, softly, in a deep monotone. He seldom makes eye contact. When he does, he holds it for only a moment, then his eyes dart away. He smiles slightly and waves whenever one of his buddies passes by. Lloyd is burly, 18 years old, with short black hair. He’s dressed in black, a t-shirt and a black summer jacket. He’s been a criminal since before he was a teenager, starting with petty theft, graduating to break-and-enters, car-jacking and then assaulting police. He’s nearing the end of his most recent stay at the Nova Scotia Youth Facility, better known as Waterville after the small Annapolis Valley town where it has been situated since 1988. He’s in this time (having been sentenced almost a year ago) for a break-and-enter.

“Some get out, and they try to make their lives better,” says Lloyd (not his real name). “They get out and they do something stupid and break their conditions, then they get back here and start thinking they can’t do it. They say ‘fuck it.’ When they start saying ‘fuck it,’ it’s dangerous because then they’ll do anything.”

We’re sitting in the spacious, comfortable, sun-lit common area overlooking Waterville’s central courtyard. Through the windows one can see an undersized soccer pitch and a basketball court filled with snow. Surrounding them are five low concrete dorms with green roofs, bars on the windows and 17-foot high fences in between. Each dorm is divided into two “units” and is able to house 24 youth. On this day in February, there are 45 male inmates at Waterville. There are currently no female inmates.

The question of what to do with young criminals has been burning in Nova Scotia since last October 14. Shortly after noon that day, 52-year-old Theresa McEvoy, a mother of three and a teacher’s assistant on lunch break from a Halifax elementary school, died when a speeding stolen vehicle broadsided her car. A 16-year old with a long criminal record was driving. Just two days before, he had been released from a youth court in Windsor after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a police chase in another stolen car. He was out on bail while awaiting sentencing for that crime.

McEvoy’s death led to an outpouring of grief and anger from people around the province. Within weeks, and at the public urging of Theresa McEvoy’s family, provincial justice minister Michael Baker called a public inquiry to look at how and why this 16-year-old was on the street. Baker also travelled to Ottawa to meet the federal justice minister and ask that the Youth Criminal Justice Act (the federal legislation that governs the treatment of 12- to 17-year-olds who are charged with a crime, from the time they’re arrested through sentencing) be amended to make car theft a violent offence and to punish offenders more severely.

The YCJA is not yet two years old. It is “prescriptive” legislation, which means it dictates to the court much of what will happen: how and when a youth will be held in custody; how long sentences can be; what rights and obligations fall to the youth. It strongly encourages rehabilitation and reintegration of youth into society over a sentence of time in jail. It prevents the publication of the offenders’ names, so convictions don’t follow them into adulthood: they essentially start with a clean slate when they turn 18.

The YCJA is considered by most to have taken a softer approach to youth crime. It replaced the Young Offenders Act in 2003 because, despite a general downward trend in youth crime rates, under the YOA Canada was incarcerating youth at the highest rate in the developed world. The overall rate of youth crime—measured by the number of youth charged by police—decreased steadily from 1992 to 1999. Statistics Canada reported that there were slight increases in 2000 and 2001 before the youth crime rate dropped to fewer than four per 100 youths in 2002.

The violent crime rate among young Canadians also declined, for four consecutive years in the late 90s before peaking in 2001 at almost one per 100 youths. The rate dropped slightly in 2002 but remained higher than a decade earlier. Statistics Canada says that increased reporting to police—a reflection of more aggressive “zero tolerance” strategies on the part of schools, social agencies and other institutions—may account for the recent rise in violent crime and common assault.

Attempting to reduce the overall incarceration rate but crack down on violent offences, the new act made a sharp distinction: for less serious offences like vandalism and petty thefts, there would be more sentencing options, such as the use of restorative justice and community programs designed to integrate youth into society. For more serious offences, violent ones in particular, there would be more consequences, including an easier mechanism to allow courts to sentence youth as adults.

“We have to provide the ability to hold young people in custody and treat car theft as a serious crime,” Justice minister Baker told CBC radio, on his way back from Ottawa. “It’s not just a property crime. It’s a lot different from shoplifting. If you steal a car, you are really taking a potential weapon and driving around the streets of our communities.”

As law students are often told in their classes, hard cases make bad law. Baker’s appeal for more jail time for car thieves is missing the point. The problem is not car theft by youth: joyriding can be done in cars that aren’t stolen; cars can be stolen and not joyridden, and you don’t have to be under 18 to do either. Another death by joyriding last October came as the result of a speeding car borrowed from parents.

“I would say it’s myopic,” says New Democratic Party justice critic and former crown attorney Kevin Deveaux of Baker’s initiative. “I say that because he’s focusing on one point, which is that under the YCJA, if it’s not a violent crime, it’s almost impossible to have incarceration.”As the recent spate of robberies, muggings and assaults along Spring Garden Road shows, youth crime ranges from graffiti to MP3-player theft to forced bank machine withdrawals.

“Let me start by saying the biggest problem is how we’re dealing with youth in this province,” says Deveaux. “Whether it’s 15 years of cuts to programs in our schools or in our health care system, we have children with behavioural problems or mental health problems that aren’t being addressed.

“People have come into my office, parents of children who are eight and nine years old and have serious behavioural problems. Experts keep telling them this could lead to more serious problems, but they’re not getting the help they need.”

Waterville deputy superintendent Mike Sampson expresses a similar sentiment. He’s a tall, imposing man with a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair and a moustache to match. He’s worked at Waterville since it opened in 1988, working his way up through the ranks. “These youth have experienced things in their lives that young people shouldn’t experience,” he says, seated behind a desk in his spartan office. The office area at Waterville could be that of a high school or community recreation centre.

“Sexual abuse, insufficient parenting, lack of guidance. A majority of our youth have had difficulties in school (sometimes because of learning disabilities) which lead to not going to school, which sometimes leads to experimenting with alcohol and drugs, which leads to alcohol and drug issues.

“There are some real good reasons why these kids are mad,” he says. “If we went through the same life experiences that they had by the time they hit 16 or 17... the anger is real and the anger is there for good reasons. That doesn’t excuse what they do, but there are reasons.”

Sampson is proud of his staff and his facility. Since the YCJA came in, Waterville has seen a 40 percent decrease in the number of inmates, but they now tend to be more needy and violent. Now, youth only come to Waterville if they’re convicted of serious offences—murder, assault, sexual assault—or if they’re repeat offenders. “It makes our job a little more difficult because we’re dealing with those youth on a daily basis,” Sampson says. “But this is the place they should be.”

He gives me a full tour: from the holding cell where new inmates are strip-searched and left to “dry out,” if necessary, to the small chapel, which he says is a popular place. He pores over his list of inmates, deciding whom I should interview. His first choice has just been put into the punishment unit for bad behaviour—locked in his room 23 hours a day, having to earn by good behaviour everything from a mattress up. So that boy is unavailable. Instead, Sampson suggests Lloyd.

Lloyd’s mother died when he was 11 and his father has had no positive influence on his life. He brings the discussion to the specific. “When I was growing up all the younger kids had sports and stuff and their parents had the money and bought them gear and stuff,” he says. “They’re still doing sports and me, I’ve been doing crime since that age.”

In Waterville, Lloyd is taking part in education and training programs. He’s working on his carpentry skills. When he gets out, he plans to head to New Glasgow, rent a place and try to find work. “Coming here doesn’t make you better,” he says, quietly. “They keep thinking it makes you better and they say even if it’s not doing nothing, they’ll put you in here longer and it will make you better. It’s not going to make you any better.”

Cape Breton University political science professor Brian Howe, who teaches courses on young offenders, agrees. “You don’t really see many benefits of custody, other than with very serious young offenders you’re protecting society,” he says. “For occasional offenders or youth who may be repeat offenders it’s really of no use. They come and they’re likely to get into more serious problems with the law. It’s not effective.”

Perhaps car theft should be treated as a violent offence, perhaps not. But if the goal is to protect society, then preventative steps and a broad approach are necessary: better resources for child protection services; closer coordination among health, justice and education departments of child and youth services.At the same time, youth crime must be kept in perspective. “When we see something like this happen, we sometimes forget that the crime rate is going down,” says Howe. “We have less youth crime than before, and in Eastern Canada and Quebec, we have the lowest rates: There’s much more in the Northwest Territories or Alberta or Saskatchewan. We lose perspective on that.”

One more example? The downward trend in the rate of youths charged with homicide. Forty-two were charged with homicide in Canada in 2002, continuing the general decline of the last decade (with a low of 30 in 2001 and a high of 68 in 1995).

Justice Minister Baker’s approach may be not only misguided, but also futile. Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler also has his politics to play on this issue and Quebec—which of all the provinces gives the most attention to community programs, treatment and rehabilitation—is unlikely to go along with hard-line legislation.

Justice minister Baker’s public inquiry will not take place until the criminal charges against the boy who killed Theresa McEvoy are dealt with. An application to sentence him as an adult will likely not be heard until June. The terms of reference for the inquiry have not been set.The question now is will the inquiry—unlike the response to this point—direct the spotlight on the root causes for why some young Nova Scotians turn to crime?


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